August 13, 2014
By Ryan Delaney
Imagine dozens of different kinds of fruit all hanging from a single tree. It's the dream of a Syracuse artist, who is building such a tree, branch by branch.
Grafting fruit trees is a practice almost as old as fruit trees themselves. Mending branches from two different varieties of fruit is how we get hybrid fruit varieties.
Syracuse University art professor Sam Van Aken is taking the art of graft to another level.
In a make-shift tree nursery behind the school’s art building, Van Aken has been slowly grafting together what he's calling the Tree of 40 Fruit.
There are more than 100 young trees growing in planters here. Van Aken ducks under low branches to point out the varieties. He’s crafting trees that produce what are known as stone fruit.
"So that’s peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, cherries and almonds," he rattles off. He needs a cheat sheet to list all 40 varieties.
Grafting is a labor of love for Van Aken. With a small, sharp blade, he takes a branch from one tree, for example, peach. And he'll put it on a plum tree.
"I'll make a cut backwards at about 30 degrees. I'll go up about an inch and a half from that and remove a sliver," he starts explaining.
He then slides the new branch into the slot he cut, and "then I'll take the grafting tape, wrap it and attempt to make it air tight."
Clip, cut, tape, repeat. It will take several years of grafting like this to hit the 40 different varieties. He can add just a few new fruits each year. He must allow a few weeks to see if the graft take, and then another two to see if it will bear fruit.
Van Aken is an art professor, so what’s he doing growing trees?
"I wanted to create a tree that throughout the year looked normal until in the spring blossomed in different colors. And then you saw it bearing all these different fruit," he said.
"And it was really just to create almost just this surprise moment where someone would stumble across this tree and start to question, just from its appearance, start to have that moment of re-thinking."He says he likes when his art includes an element of confusion.
The tree flowers in different shades of pink and purple.
"I'm designing the trees and for me, the art is really in how it acts as a metaphor," he said.
Van Aken also grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. He learned about stone fruit from Cornell University's New York State Agriculture Experiment Station in Geneva.
When the station told him they were ripping out their own stone fruit orchard due to a lack of funding, Van Aken went in to rescue some of the ancient varieties.
After giving a presentation about it this summer, the drawing of what the Tree of 40 Fruit will look like in full bloom has earned Van Aken international attention on the internet and in the news.
About a dozen of Van Aken's trees have been installed around the country, including one in Syracuse University's September 11th remembrance garden. He says choosing the number 40 had biblical references.
"It's obviously the illusion to the Tree of Life," said Van Aken. "I mean that continues to be evoked."
So how's the fruit? Van Aken says some of the ancient varieties are fantastic and full of flavor. Others are quite sour.
"It's amazing. Every one is unique," he said.
A visit to the tree planted on Syracuse University's quad in an effort to pick some fruit to try was unsuccessful. Nothing was quite ripe enough.
Some of his early experimental trees are now planted in Van Aken's backyard.
"I have a terrible tree problem. I just can't kill a tree."
He's been eating a lot more fruit in the past few years; and giving away even more.
Photo of Sam Van Aken by Ryan Delaney.