Branch by branch, artist grafts a "Tree of 40 Fruit"

Sam Van Aken courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Art
August 14, 2014

“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.

But 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.

"So these are what I call my stock trees, And the stock trees," says Van Aken.

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 - peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, cherries and almonds.

Grafting is a labor of love for Van Aken. With a small, sharp blade, he takes a branch from one tree, in this case peach. And he’ll put it on a plum tree.

"I’ll make a cut backwards at about 30 degrees," says Van Aken. "I’ll go up about an inch and a half from that and remove a sliver."

He then slides the new branch into the slot he cut, and tightens grafting tape around it. It will take several years of grafting like this to hit the 40 different varieties.

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," says Van Aken. "And then you saw it bearing all these different fruit. 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. He says he’s taking care in designing how the trees will flower.

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 9/11 remembrance garden. He says choosing the number 40 had biblical references.

"It’s obviously the illusion to the Tree of Life. 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. 

Some of his early experimental trees are now planted in Van Aken’s backyard. He’s been eating a lot more fruit in the past few years; and giving away even more.