At the break of the 20th century, Coney Island, a peninsular section of Brooklyn, New York, entered its golden age with side shows (‘freak shows’, then) to entertain regular folks and tourists with a thirst for the weird and shocking. The tales of Coney Island were legendary, until it devolved into a poor reflection of what it used to be.
Sometime around this era, Axel Erlandson, a Swiss-American farmer, did for horticulture what Coney Island had done for human oddities. A hobbyist, Erlandson spent his whole life grafting trees to look like everything trees were not supposed to look like: ladders, baskets, cages and all manners of geometric shapes.
Erlandson died a relative unknown, and his Tree Circus, as he called it, eventually became one of the many weird things you chanced upon by luck, lost in the chaos of post-War America.
A few decades ahead, we move to a farm in Reading, Pennsylvania. Born to a farming family, Sam Van Aken chose to pursue art, instead. As an art professor at Syracuse University, Van Aken merged his passion with his farming background only later. In 2008, he grafted vegetables together to create unearthly plant specimens as part of his Eden exhibition.
Creating new species/breeds has never really stopped at dogs that look like they came out of an 80s hair metal band (Chinese Crested) or badly named hybrid fruits like the limequat (lime and kumquat) and pluots (plum and apricot). It can be much more than that.
One thing lead to another and Van Aken’s fascination with creating sculptures through grafting gave birth to the Tree of 40 Fruit. The Tree of 40 Fruit is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a tree… with 40 different varieties of fruit grafted to it.
The Tree has both ornamental and horticultural value. Van Aken specially chose stone fruit varieties that were either not commercially available or simply unknown, to create the Tree. On a regular day, the Tree looks inconspicuous with all the features of any plant: bark, branch and leaves. Come bloom, it becomes a botanical menagerie of sorts, displaying variegated shades of pink.
The Tree of 40 Fruit isn’t just an artistic endeavour. It’s a tale of 40 fruits, their legacies and their future beyond the 21st century.
YourStory spoke with Sam Van Aken to find out more about his important work.
Tell us about yourself, and how you came to combine farming with art.
Growing up on a farm, I must admit I was pretty eager to get away. Eventually becoming an artist I found many of those experiences from youth kept creeping into my work, including the idea of grafting. After creating numerous works that dealt with the idea of grafting I actually attempted to carry it out, which led to the Tree of 40 Fruit. So, I found myself returning to grafting.
What other experiments have you been involved with?
The other grafting sculptures included creating “hybrid” fruit by combining pieces of plastic fruit which eventually led to grafting vegetables together. Based on this work I was offered the opportunity to start working with an actual orchard in Maine. My original thought was to create an orchard of individual trees that blossomed in a particular manner. Due to the economic downturn, the funding for this orchard dried up. Wanting to continue the project I realized I could collapse the entire orchard onto one tree.
What is the Tree of 40 Fruit, and what inspired you to develop this project?
The Tree of 40 Fruit is a single fruit tree which grows 40 different varieties of stone fruit including peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, cherries and almonds. It blossoms in variegated tones of pink, white, and crimson in spring, and bears a multitude of fruit in summer.
The inspiration for the project began with the idea of creating this tree and placing it in a public setting so that when someone happened upon the tree and saw these different colored blossoms or multitude of fruit, it would cause a rethinking. As the project evolved I realized that each of these varieties having their own unique blossom could be sculpted to bloom in a certain way.
All of this, then, led to discovering the Plum and Apricot orchards at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York. At the Ag. Station I found hundreds and hundreds of varieties of stone fruit, each with their own identity and history, some dating back hundreds of years, a few several thousands of years old. Unfortunately, they planned to tear the orchard out due to a lack of funding, and so I picked up the lease on the orchard until I could graft all of the varieties on to my trees at which point the project also became a form of conservation.
Are the resources needed to sustain such a tree different from what is generally required?
The Tree of 40 Fruit does have special growing requirements. I begin them as rootstock and grow them until they are three years old with clearly defined lateral branches. At this point, I spend another three years grafting the trees until they possess 20 varieties of fruit. After approximately six years, I try to locate a tree. Once sited I then visit the Tree twice annually to continue to graft until the tree possesses all 40 varieties.
What lifespan does the entire hybrid have?
The tree is estimated to live thirty years.
Is there something more than art you hope to achieve with the Tree of 40 Fruit?
My primary concern and motivation for these works is artistic. I create them to serve as beginning of narrative. In that moment of encounter when someone happens upon the tree and begins to question, I believe is when the narrative begins.
Do you think hybrids at this level have commercial or environmental benefit?
Based on the fact that they take nearly ten years to create and bear only as much as a normal tree, I do not see them being commercially viable. That said they do have an environmental benefit in that they preserve heirloom and antique fruit varieties that cannot be found commercially. In fact I’m not sure if several of these varieties can be found anywhere.
Do these trees need any sort of special maintenance once they’ve been planted / grafted?
Like all fruit trees they will need to be pruned.
Do you think these kinds of art projects will encourage people to start their own grafting experiments?
Based on many of the email inquiries I have been receiving I would imagine they will.
How do you hope to expand this project for the future?
As I mentioned in a Tedx Talk I gave in March, one of the goals I had was to place a grove of Tree of 40 Fruit in an urban setting. Working with Art Historian/Critic/Entrepreneur and real estate developer Chris Thompson and his development partner Jed Troubh, we will be planting the first grove of Tree of 40 Fruit this fall at Thompson Point in Portland, Maine. Through this smart growth project, as new buildings are added to the site, another Tree of 40 Fruit will be added, eventually creating an orchard of trees integrated into the site.
Currently, the Tree of 40 Fruit are being sold to support the creation of an heirloom fruit orchard that would serve as an archive of these native and antique stone fruit varieties. This orchard would be much like the original orchard at the New York Agricultural Experiment Station that was torn out, and where I collected many of the varieties I use to create the trees.
In addition to the archive, I’m also hoping to create a “field guide” (similar to an Audobon Book) with pictures and descriptions of each of the varieties.
Through the orchard, which would be open to growers, nurseries, and the general public and the “field guide”, I hope to reintroduce many of these forgotten varieties.
Photography credits: Sam Van Aken courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Art