Every spring, The Tree of 40 Fruit blooms in a myriad of colors, and every summer it bears more than 40 different types of fruit. The tree is not genetically modified. Instead, it is “sculpted by way of grafting” by award-winning contemporary artist Sam Van Aken who wants to start a conversation about something important – the loss of diversity in food production.
During the process of creating his “artwork”, and while searching for the hundreds of varieties of stone fruit that he needed to complete it, Aken realized that for various reasons, amongst which industrialization and the pervasiveness of monocultures, we are losing diversity in food production and that heirloom, antique, and native varieties were disappearing. On top of this, the one orchard around New York that still grew a wide variety of fruit was about to be torn out due to a lack of funding. Though he hadn’t been involved in agriculture for more than 20 years, Aken decided to pick up the lease and continue collecting and growing trees in order to preserve the varieties.
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.
So what is grafting, anyway? As part of the process, Aken takes one of the varities of his stock trees and puts it onto a root structure. Throughout the following years (about five to graft 40 varieties on one tree) he uses a process called "chip grafting" in which he takes a sliver off of another tree that includes a bud and inserts it into an incision made on the working tree. After that he tapes it and lets it sit and heal during the winter. By grafting the varieties in certain order, Aken can "sculpt" how the tree will blossom and bear fruit.
I've been told by people that have [a tree] 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.
The Tree of 40 Fruit stands as a reminder that while we all share a common source of life, it is diversity that makes life beautiful and worth experiencing. As consumers we should start questioning why there are only a few types of plums, for example, or one type of apricot, and demand to see more variety in our markets – something that will benefit not only our health, but the environment as well.
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.
Read an interview with Sam Van Aken and watch his TEDxManhattan talk: