Tree with 40 fruits

The Tree of 40 Fruit Is Exactly as Awesome as It Sounds

A ward-winning contemporary artist and Syracuse University art professor Sam Van Aken grew up on a family farm in Reading, Pennsylvania, but he spent his college years and much of his early career focused on art rather than agriculture. While Van Aken says that his work has always been “inspired by nature and our relationship to nature,” it wasn’t until recently that the artist’s farming background became such a clear and significant influence, first in 2008 when he grafted vegetables together to create strange plants for his Eden exhibition, and then shortly after that when he started to work on the hybridized fruit trees that would become the Tree of 40 Fruit.

Each tree begins as a slightly odd-looking specimen resembling some kind of science experiment, and for much of the year, looks like just any other tree. In spring, the trees bloom to reveal an incredibly striking and thought-provoking example of what can happen when nature inspires art. Then, over the course of several months, Van Aken’s trees produce an incredible harvest of plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines, and almonds, including many you’ve likely never seen before.

Thus far, Van Aken has created and placed 16 trees in museums, community centers, and private art collections around the country, including in Newton, Massachusetts; Pound Ridge, New York; Short Hills, New Jersey; Bentonville, Arkansas; and San Jose, California. Using a unique process he calls “sculpture through grafting,” Van Aken creates trees that grow and support more than 40 varieties of stone fruit, including many heirloom, antique, and native varieties.

On the heels of Van Aken’s TEDxManhattan talk, we spoke with him about the Tree of 40 Fruit, how he developed and executed the concept, his plans for the future, and what happens to all that fruit.

Epicurious: What is the Tree of 40 Fruit and what inspired the project?

Sam Van Aken: At the time this project began I was doing a series of radio hoaxes where I hijacked commercial radio station frequencies and played my own commercials and songs. In addition to becoming acquainted with FCC regulations I also discovered that the term “hoax” comes from “hocus pocus,” which in turn comes from the Latin “hoc est enim corpus miem,” meaning “this is my body” and it’s what the Catholic priest says over the bread during Eucharist, transforming it into the body of Christ. This process is known as transubstantiation and led me to wonder how I could transubstantiate a thing. How could the appearance of a thing remain the same while the reality changed? And so, I transubstantiated a fruit tree. Through the majority of the year it is a normal-looking fruit tree until spring when it blossoms in different tones pink, white, and crimson, and late in summer it bears 40 different types of fruit.

Epi: What is the goal of the Tree of 40 Fruit and what do you hope to communicate?

SVA: First and foremost I see the tree as an artwork. Like the hoaxes I was doing, I want the tree to interrupt and transform the everyday. When the tree unexpectedly blossoms in different colors, or you see these different types of fruit hanging from its branches, it not only changes the way you look at it, but it changes the way you perceive in general.

As the project evolved, it took on more goals. In trying to find different varieties of stone fruit to create the Tree of 40 Fruit, I realized that for various reasons, including industrialization and the creation of enormous monocultures, we are losing diversity in food production and that heirloom, antique, and native varieties that were less commercially viable were disappearing. I saw this as an opportunity to, in some way, preserve these varieties. In addition to maintaining these varieties in my nursery, I graft them to the Tree of 40 Fruit. Additionally, when I place a Tree of 40 Fruit, I go to local farmers and growers to collect stone fruit varieties and graft them to the trees. In this way they become an archive of the agricultural history of where they are located as well as a means to preserve antique and native varieties.

Epi: You’ve described your artistic process as “sculpting by way of grafting.” Could you explain what that means?

SVA: I currently work with over 250 varieties of stone fruit and developed a timeline of when they blossom in relationship to each other. By grafting these different varieties onto the tree in a certain order I can essentially sculpt how the tree is to blossom.

Epi: Why did you choose to work with stone fruits?

SVA: Stone fruits have greater diversity among the species, and are the most inter-compatible. Although it gets tricky when you start to graft cherries, for the most part one can easily graft between plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines, and even almonds.

Epi: Where and how did you acquire all the different fruit varieties?

SVA: My primary source for most of these varieties was the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York. When I began the project there was an orchard at the Experiment Station with hundreds of different plum and apricot varieties. They planned to tear this orchard out, so I picked up the lease until I could graft all of these varieties onto the trees in my nursery.

Epi: How long does it take to create one of your trees?

SVA: Depending on when the tree is planted it takes about five years to develop each tree and graft 40 varieties to it.

Epi: Do you continue to work on the trees after they’re planted?

SVA: After the tree has been planted, I visit it twice a year, in the spring to prune and late summer to graft, for three years, until the tree is established.

Epi: What happens to all the fruit from your trees?

SVA: Until I discovered garlic and peppermint repellents, they were a huge hit with the local deer, but fortunately we’ve resolved that. I’ve been told by people that have at their home that it provides the perfect amount and perfect variety of fruit. So rather than having one variety that produces more than you know what to do with, it provides good amounts of each of the 40 varieties. Since all of these fruit ripen at different times, from July through October, you also aren’t inundated.

Personally, I give away most of the fruit that comes from my trees. For people who aren’t aware of farming and growing, the diversity of these varieties and their characteristic tastes are surprising and they ultimately begin to question why there are only a few types of plums, one type of apricot, and a handful of peach varieties at their local market.

Epi: Each of your trees has the capacity to grow more than 40 different varieties of stone fruits. Can you explain the significance of the number 40?

SVA: The number 40 has been used throughout Western religion to represent a number beyond counting. interested in this idea of a bounty of fruit coming from one tree, 40 seemed appropriate.

Epi: Do you have any plans for the future of this project?

SVA: I would like to continue to place these trees throughout the country preserving these heirloom, antique, and native fruit varieties. Wherever I place them there is a sense of wonderment that they create through their blossoms, the different fruit, and the process by which they are created.

Eventually, I would like to create a grove or small orchard of these trees in an urban setting. I have always stayed away from artwork that educates people, but to some extent these works in addition to being beautiful and producing fruit cause one to reconsider the possibilities with food and fruit production.

Photo: Sam Van Aken

See More Interviews:
  • El Bulli Chef Ferran Adrià
  • René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma ›
  • Moosewood Cookbook author Mollie Katzen ›
  • French Pastry Chef François Payard ›

The Tree of 40 Fruit: How a hybrid art piece grafts mysticism onto agriculture

WASHINGTON — As an artist, Sam Van Aken tends to work with some unusual media.

Van Aken’s “Tree of 40 Fruit” is a series of hybridized fruit trees. One will be will be on display Friday through Sunday as part of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s ACCelerate Creativity and Innovation Festival. (Courtesy Sam Van Aken) (Courtesy Sam Van Aken)Through grafting, Van Aken is been able to grow over 40 varieties of stone fruits — such as plums, apricots and cherries — on an individual tree. (Courtesy Sam Van Aken) (Courtesy Sam Van Aken)As an artwork, he said, the tree has layers of symbolism built into it. “They’re almost like Frankenstein trees,” he said, “but then they can also operate in a completely different, almost sacred-like layer.” (Courtesy Sam Van Aken) (Courtesy Sam Van Aken)The work of crafting these trees is slow trial and error: It takes a few years to know whether a graft has truly taken. Van Aken controls it all with strategic graft placement and pruning, as well as working around each fruit’s growth cycle. (Courtesy Sam Van Aken) (Courtesy Sam Van Aken) (1/5)

Share This Gallery:

Share on Facebook. Share on Twitter. Share via email.

While others are content to follow their vision using pencils, brushes and a canvas, he’s using weather balloons, planes and clouds.

He also uses more-terrestrial media, and one example will be on display this weekend at the Smithsonian Institution.

Van Aken’s “Tree of 40 Fruit” is a series of hybridized fruit trees. Through grafting, he’s grown over 40 varieties of stone fruits — such as plums, apricots and cherries — on an individual tree.

“I wanted to have a tree that blossomed in different colors,” said the Syracuse University professor, who learned about grafting as a child.

‘The most amazing magical thing’

“I saw my grandfather do it, and it was kind of like the most amazing magical thing I’ve ever seen,” Van Aken said.

“He took a branch from a peach tree and put it on to another peach tree. He said, ‘Just wait here, and by next spring it will start to grow and become another branch,’ and sure enough it did.”

That family background in agriculture led to using this unexpected medium.

“Even though I grew up in a farming community, grafting had this certain sort of mysticism to it,” he said. “It was this skill that was greatly admired. … It wasn’t common knowledge.”

Since he started the project about eight years ago, he’s crafted 25 trees, most of which are on display around North America. In addition, some are in Sweden and even in China.

The tree that will be on display Friday through Sunday is part of the ACCelerate Creativity and Innovation Festival. Organizers call the event at the National Museum of American History a celebration of Atlantic Coast Conference universities’ “creative exploration and research.”

Innovating across disciplines

Drawn from the ACC’s 15 campuses, the festival’s 48 exhibitions span civic engagement; art and technology; sustainability and environment; biomimetics; health and body; and making.

Other exhibitions include:

  • BodyExplorer, a medical simulator that allows healthcare trainees to learn anatomy and physiology through an augmented reality-enhanced, full-body simulated patient (University of Pittsburgh)
  • The aqueous immersion surgical system, which provides “reliable wound containment for surgical treatment” in reduced-gravity conditions (University of Louisville)
  • Electrocet, a proof-of-concept vehicle for a versatile hybrid-electric powertrain system “that can deliver electric-only commuting, superb fuel economy and thrilling acceleration” (Georgia Tech University)

The festival’s aim is to showcase projects that bring together scientists, engineers, artists and designers, said Dr. Ben Knapp of Virginia Tech University, who’s the festival’s co-chair.

“They require cross-disciplinary collaboration,” Knapp said.

Layers of symbolism

Van Aken’s horticulture/artwork is slow trial and error: It takes a few years to know whether a graft has truly taken. He controls it all with strategic graft placement and pruning, as well as working around each fruit’s growth cycle.

The exhibitions, he said, comprise layers of symbolism.

“They’re almost like Frankenstein trees,” he said, “but then they can also operate in a completely different, almost sacred-like layer.”

That nod to the sacred is seen in his most recent efforts, which involve a literal eye to the heavens: He’s using balloons and planes to create crepuscular rays — or as he calls it, “the light of heaven.”

It’s another example of how Van Aken manipulates nature to enhance its beauty. “The Tree of 40 Fruit” exhibitions manage to improve a tree’s springtime beauty, with blossoms that radiate a spectrum of vibrant pastel hues.

“Seeing the trees in the spring every year — it still becomes a surprise for me,” Van Aken said. “When you see them blossom … they’re evolving. They’re changing, Every year, each individual tree becomes different and something else.”

Like WTOP on Facebook and follow @WTOP on Twitter to engage in conversation about this article and others.

Also on Colossal



#gardening #plants #trees

This Tree Created by Artist Sam Van Aken Grows 40 Different Kinds of Fruit

In 2008, while locating specimens to create a multi-colored blossom tree for an art project, artist and Syracuse University art professor Sam Van Aken had the opportunity to acquire a 3-acre orchard from the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station. Fascinated by the practice of grafting trees since a young age, Aken began to graft buds from the 250 heritage varieties found on the orchard onto a single stock tree.

To create the Frankenstein-esque tree, Aken worked with stone fruits (fruits with pits) like peaches, plums, apricots, almonds, and nectarines. Over the course of five years he successfully grafted dozens of plants onto the same tree, and with that, the Tree of 40 Fruit project was born. Because of their similarities, all 40 fruits bud, bloom and fruit in near perfect unison.

Aken has since grafted at least 16 different “Trees of 40 Fruit” which are planted across the U.S. in places like Newton, Massachusetts; Pound Ridge, New York; Short Hills, New Jersey; Bentonville, Arkansas; and San Jose, California. Each tree is specific to its environment, using both local and antique varieties.

National Geographic recently met up with Aken to interview the artist about how he makes each tree. You can hear him talk about the project in the video above. (via Digg)

Do stories and artists like this matter to you? Become a Colossal Member and support independent arts publishing. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about contemporary art, apply for our annual grant, and get exclusive access to interviews, partner discounts, and event tickets.

This Magical Tree Produces 40 Different Types of Fruit

Sam Van Aken grew up on a family farm before pursuing a career as an artist. Now he works as an art professor at Syracuse University, but his most famous achievement – the incredible Tree of 40 Fruit – combines his knowledge of agriculture and art.

In 2008, Van Aken learned that an orchard at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station was about to be shut down due to a lack of funding. This single orchard grew a great number of heirloom, antique, and native varieties of stone fruit, and some of these were 150 to 200 years old.

To lose this orchard would render many of these rare and old varieties of fruit extinct. So, to preserve them, Van Aken bought the orchard, and spent the following years figuring out how to graft parts of the trees onto a single fruit tree.

Working with a pool of over 250 varieties of stone fruit, Van Aken developed a timeline of when each of them blossom in relationship to each other and started grafting a few onto a working tree’s root structure.

Once the working tree was about two years old, Van Aken used a technique called chip grafting to add more varieties on as separate branches. This technique involves taking a sliver off a fruit tree that includes the bud, and inserting that into an incision in the working tree.

Artist’s diagram of the grafted tree (Sam Van Aken courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Art)

It’s then taped into place, and left to sit and heal over winter. If all goes well, the branch will be pruned back to encourage it to grow as a normal branch on the working tree.

After about five years and several grafted branches, Van Aken’s first Tree of 40 Fruit was complete.

It actually looks like a normal tree for most of the year, but in spring the plant reveals a gorgeous patchwork of pink, white, red and purple blossoms, which turn into an array of plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines, cherries and almonds during the summer months, all of which are rare and unique varieties.

A young Tree of 40 Fruit in a public space (Krista Kennedy/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Not only is it a beautiful specimen, but it’s also helping to preserve the diversity of the world’s stone fruit. Stone fruits are selected for commercial growing based first and foremost on how long they keep, then how large they grow, then how they look, and lastly how they taste.

This means that there are thousands of stone fruit varieties in the world, but only a select few are considered commercially viable – even if they aren’t the best tasting, or most nutritious ones.

According to listings on Van Aken’s website, there are at least 20 such trees planted by Van Aken so far, and they can be found in museums, community centres, and private art collections around the US.

Of course, the obvious question that remains is what happens to all the fruit that gets harvested from these trees? As Van Aken told Lauren Salkeld at Epicurious in 2014:

“I’ve been told by people that have at their home that it provides the perfect amount and perfect variety of fruit. So rather than having one variety that produces more than you know what to do with, it provides good amounts of each of the 40 varieties.

“Since all of these fruit ripen at different times, from July through October, you also aren’t inundated.”

You can learn more about these trees and read the rest of the interview here.

A version of this article was originally published in September 2014.

An art project featuring a live tree that bears 40 different kinds of fruit is more than just a conversation piece. The so-called “Tree of 40 Fruit” — blossoming in a variety of pretty pink hues when completed — is rooted in science.

The eye-catching artistic rendering of the tree brought worldwide attention to its creator, Sam Van Aken, a professor in the school of art at Syracuse University in New York. And although Van Aken’s “Franken-tree” is not common, the processes that hold it together are, according to experts.

” taken the idea of a single root stock and a single variety and amplified it to express something creative, and that’s the artistic side of it for him,” said Greg Peck, an assistant professor of horticulture at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

The 40 fruit-bearing tree includes only “stone fruits” from the Prunus genus, which all share very similar genetics. The tree looks like any other fruit tree for most of the year until spring, when it pops into pink, white and crimson blooms. In summer, the tree bursts with ripened fruit, including peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, cherries and almonds.

Grafting

To squeeze all 40 fruit varieties onto one tree, Van Aken is “grafting” budding branches from individual fruit trees onto one, large tree. To do this, he slices a mature, slightly brownish branch with buds from a peach tree, for instance, and inserts the branch into a matching slit in a branch on the Tree of 40 Fruit. Once the two branches connect, he winds tape around their point of contact, allowing the bud to grow into a new branch.

The branches’ intimate connection is key, though they can also connect at various parts on the tree, including at the roots. How two types of trees are grafted together can also vary, from using a small incision for “bud grafting” (what Van Aken did) to an amputation-like cut for “whip grafting.”

“There are tons of different kinds of grafts, but at the end of the day, what’s important in the graft is that the vascular tissue from the two pieces of plant material are connected,” Peck said.

Vascular tissue is the pale, soft and slightly spongy material that lies underneath bark. It includes xylem, which shuttles water and nutrients through the branches; phloem, which carries sugars and carbohydrates, and cambium, which divides the xylem and phloem tissues.

Specifically, the two plant materials must connect at the cambium to allow the flow of nutrients and water from one plant to the other, which ensures the survival of the graft, Peck told Live Science.

If two trees grow close enough together, it’s possible for them to form a natural graft, as long as the outside bark is worn away and the vascular tissues connect, he added. Root grafting can also happen when two trees’ roots connect and exchange nutrients and water, Peck said.

Uniform fruit

Since nature’s grafts are unpredictable, people have taken matters into their own hands. Grafting is particularly useful for fruit trees in commercial settings and has been used for centuries. The grafting process ensures that the fruit stays “true to type,” Peck said.

“True to type” means that “the Gala apple that you buy at the supermarket is identical to every other Gala apple that you buy,” Peck said. As such, a branch from one Gala apple tree is used to make another Gala apple tree, and a branch from the new Gala tree can propagate future generations of Gala trees, Peck said.

Gala apple tree branches are attached to a “root stock” that includes the root system and base of the tree. It is the lowest section of the tree that comes into contact with a graft, Peck said.

For his Tree of 40 Fruit, Van Aken chose a plum tree root stock that was 3 years old and had about 4 or 5 branches when he first started grafting. The plum tree has good structure,” Van Aken said, and is among the most compatible to other stone fruit. It also offers especially sturdy support for all 40 fruit varieties, he added.

A couple varieties of fruit are grafted onto the tree every year, Van Aken told Live Science, and he’s nuturing multiple franken-trees. He currently has 16 grafted multi-fruit trees under his care, with the most recent planted this past fall.

Still, producing a tree that bears so many different kinds of fruit is more complicated than simply finding a sturdy root stock. One root stock does not fit all, but it can accommodate multiple fruits of the same genus, said Amaya Atucha, an assistant professor of horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For example, orange trees and apple trees can’t share a root stock, but peaches and almonds can, Atucha said.

Nurseries often grow root stocks as little trees until they are 1 or 2 years old, then cut their small branches (using whip grafting) and graft a branch of a fruit tree. With this method, root stocks can be bred to be pest-resistant and tolerant to acidity, among other desirable traits, Atucha told Live Science.

Diversified fruit

Grafting can keep the taste and look of fruit uniform, but the technique also allows a variety of fruit to share the same tree.

“Forty is pretty exciting and unique, but it can be done,” Peck said. However, not only would it take precision to graft each branch onto the main tree, the tree would require a lot of maintenance. Over time, if the tree grew freely without human care, “one of these or several varieties will be more rigorous than others and probably outcompete their neighbor graft,” becoming larger and shading out other grafts, Peck said.

Harvesting the tree will also be a slightly longer process, because the fruits will ripen at different times. For instance, the cherries will need to be picked before the apricots, and the apricots will drop from the tree before the peaches.

Root stocks are also bred for height, so certain breeds can grow into massive trees that are able to support a multitude of fruit, Peck said. Commercial growers, however, rely on grafting to produce true-to-type fruits that grow uniformly, because having trees that are the same size and shape makes for easier harvesting. For that reason, it would be difficult for commercial growers to grow multi-fruit trees, Atucha said.

Still, homeowners, free from commercial constraints, can grow multi-fruit trees, and some already do. “We see it sometimes with apples,” Peck said. “People will do this in their backyards with apples and graft different varieties onto one apple tree.”

Elizabeth Goldbaum is on Twitter. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science

The Tree of Forty Fruits

A variety of Stoned Fruits (Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Ever thought of having an orchard in your back-yard? It might be possible in regional areas but not in the average suburb and certainly not in the city. The majority of us get our fruits from the super market or market just like most other things and rarely grow or produce anything from scratch. This has led to the creation of monocultures, where the most commercially viable varieties of fruits and other products are grown to have the most financial gain. This has led to a lack of genetic diversity in the fruits we find today and has led to the almost extinction of certain varieties of fruit.

All fruits at a supermarket look similar because many of them are products of cloned trees that are selected because of their high productivity (Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

A New York based artist and associate professor at Syracuse University Sam van Aken realized this problem when he was doing ground work for one of his sculptures. He has been producing artwork involving hybridized vegetables and wanted to produce a sculpture that was a hybrid tree. In order to do so he had to find varieties of fruits of the same family, but he realized that there weren’t many growers who had the variety that he was after.

The New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York was one place that he found which had hundreds of varieties of stoned fruits. Stoned fruits are fruits that have a “stone” surrounded by a fleshy covering e.g. peaches, apricots, nectarines, almonds. He also found out that the orchard in Geneva was about to be closed down due to a lack of funding. He bought over the orchard and with the variety of fruit that was now available to him he started work on his tree of forty fruits.

Peaches are a variety of stoned fruits (Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

It takes many patient winters to get a tree to produce 40 different types of fruit. He carefully grafts the different varieties on to a root structure. The process of grafting is like transplant surgery. The plant may reject the new branch, and the plant might get infections at the site of the graft. It probably helped van Aken that he grew up in a farm and had an idea of what he was doing.

He has researched and come up with the first timeline of when all these different fruit trees blossom relative to each other. Using this he places branches of fruit on to the root structure to create his sculpture.

What initially drew me to this work is that this amazing tree is an orchard in a tree, but as I kept reading more and more about it I was repeatedly astounded at the journey the tree and it’s creator have gone through. What started off as a art project ended up being a conservation effort and a research project.

Sam van Aken delivering a speech. The image in the background has fruits he harvested from one tree, in just one week. Just behind him is one of the trees of forty fruits (Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

He has now created many trees of forty fruits and they have been placed in various places around America.

The tree of forty fruit, an artists impression

An actual picture of the tree and another

Source Article: The Tree of 40 Fruit Is Exactly as Awesome as It Sounds

Sam van Aken at TEDx Manhattan

But when spring finds its way to Central New York, something magical happens. For starters, it blossoms, which on the heels of a Syracuse winter can seem miraculous enough. This unusual tree, however, really puts on a lavish spectacle—blossoming in several variegated shades of pink and white all at the same time. Come summer, it does some more showing off, bursting forth with an abundance of fruit, also in many varieties. And when it reaches full maturity, it will have the capacity to grow some 40 different kinds of stone fruit—plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines, cherries, and almonds.

Sounds a bit like a Disney fantasy, but thanks to the labors and ingenuity of sculptor and art professor Sam Van Aken, the Tree of 40 Fruit is real, thriving, and setting down roots at locations across the country. The one on campus was the first of its kind, created in 2008 and dedicated in 2011 during a University 9/11 remembrance event as a symbol of acceptance and dialogue across differences. Several other trees, many of them donated, have been placed with art collectors, with individuals, or in museums and public settings, including a grove of six trees planted in Portland, Maine, in spring 2014. “The Tree of 40 Fruit really started as an artwork,” says Van Aken, who chose the number 40 for its historical and biblical significance as an amount that points to the infinite. “I wanted to make this tree that would blossom in different colors and bear different types of fruit, so that when you’d happen upon it, it would cause this moment of rethinking that hopefully becomes the beginning of a story.”

The first of its kind, this Tree of 40 Fruit brings its unique beauty to campus each spring.

Each tree is created through grafting, a process that has intrigued Van Aken since he witnessed it as a child growing up on a farm in Pennsylvania. “I just thought it was the most fascinating thing in the world—taking the branch of a tree, sticking it onto another tree, and watching it grow,” he says. “It is like Dr. Seuss and Frankenstein and all those amazing things you think of when you’re a kid.” It wasn’t until many years later, though, that Van Aken started “playing around” with the idea of grafting as a means of making art, first combining pieces of plastic fruit to create hybrids and then moving on to work with real vegetables and, ultimately, trees.

To start the Tree of 40 Fruit project, Van Aken scoured New York State in search of varieties of stone fruit, a species that offers up the most diversity. This proved difficult, since the majority of stone fruits are now grown in California. He was eventually able to lease an heirloom orchard with grants he obtained from the University and Creative Capital. “It turns out that Central New York was one of the largest producers of stone fruits—particularly plums—in the 19th century,” he says. “And this one orchard in particular contained all the heirloom, native, hybrid, and antique varieties from this agricultural industry.”

From that orchard, Van Aken developed dwarf stock trees for each variety, growing them in an outdoor nursery next to the Comstock Art Facility on campus. The nursery now serves year-round as a kind of mad-scientist laboratory where Van Aken does the grafting and his “inventions” come to life. “I start each tree of 40 fruit as root stock, taking one of the varieties from a stock tree and putting it onto a root structure,” says Van Aken, who works with more than 250 varieties of stone fruit in creating the trees. “After two years, it is pruned back to an open-centered vase shape with four or five primary branches.” The grafting process he uses, called chip grafting, involves taking a sliver that includes the bud from one of the stock trees and inserting it into a like-size incision in the working tree. “I tape it, let it sit and heal in all winter, and then I prune it back and hope that it grows,” he says.

For me, there’s much more power in a metaphor than there is in a technology.

What began as an artwork has blossomed into much more for Van Aken, branching out to become both a research project chronicling the timing of when different varieties blossom in relationship to each other, and a form of conservation. “By taking all these species and grafting them onto the trees of 40 fruit, and then placing them throughout the country, in a way I am creating my own type of diversity and preservation,” he says.

Regardless of the diverse areas of interest he feels called to pursue, Van Aken says, creative impulse remains at the heart of all he does. “For me, there’s much more power in a metaphor than there is in a technology,” he says. “And that’s why these things always remain artwork for me—first and foremost.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *