The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

A Tree Of 40 Fruit

By Melissa Wiley in Food on Aug 1, 2014 3:00PM

Maybe one tree shouldn’t grow 40 types of fruit. Maybe that’s too much nectar to ask any one plant to hold. But contemporary artist Sam Van Aken has done it anyway, practicing extreme hybridization while preserving rare varietals of stone fruit.

Van Aken’s “Trees of 40 Fruit” project plants trees blooming with a wondrous mélange of purple, crimson, white and pink blossoms in spring that produce, yes, 40 types of fruit, all heirloom and no longer commercially sold. Branches laden with erstwhile peaches, cherries, apricots and the like promote conservation while acting as art.

Initially, he grafts only two types of fruit trees onto a single root structure. After waiting for this tree to mature for two years, he adds yet more varieties to preexisting limbs via “chip grafting,” wherein he attaches budding branches to incisions on the rootstock via tape and waits for metamorphosis to occur.

Van Aken, who currently cultivates more than 250 types of fruit-bearing trees, told the Huffington Post he views the grafting process as a metaphor for sexuality vis-à-vis Ovid’s Metamorphoses and modern manipulation of life in the vein of the good Dr. Frankenstein. Like iconic characters in literature, Van Aken also wants his trees to spark a narrative, one regarding the dubious fruits of monoculture itself.

A single orchard at Cornell's New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, Van Aken found while scouring the country for heirloom fruits, grew almost all of America’s stone fruits in the 19th century. This one orchard now represents the 150-200 year history of that industry, containing all the era’s heirloom, hybrid, native and antique varietals. Owing to lack of funding, however, the lease was recently due to expire and no one to continue tending the trees. So Van Aken, a former farm boy, took on the lease himself until he could begin bringing its diversity to the wider public.

Most stone fruits, Van Aken points out, are grown in California’s Central Valley, while most of our apples hail from New York and Washington states. Our fruit’s diversity has waned over time based on presentation (let's just say we don't like yellow plums), how long the fruit keeps and taste trends, Van Aken found when talking to commercial growers. He hopes his project will resurrect some love for the peaches and nectarines of our ancestors and encourage us to give monoculture another look. The grafting process takes approximately five years per tree, and thus far he has planted 16 trees of 40 fruit in cities across the country.