The Tree of 40 Fruit

The number 40 holds a perplexing symbolic significance in the Bible, appearing in periods of tribulation or demarcating tests in strength and will throughout the New and Old Testaments. The root of its mystical weight remains unknown, but some scholars believe the number may reflect the natural cycles of the Near Eastern rivers, or the period of 40 days in which the Pleiades constellation disappeared each spring while the winter rains gave way to drought.

Now, artist and botanical sculptor Sam Van Aken has created an homage of truly Edenic proportions to the mystifying number with his “Tree of 40 Fruit.”

As its name suggests, the tree is capable of bearing up to 40 different types of “stone fruit,” or fruit with large, hard seeds, of the genus Prunus. Van Aken, a professor at Syracuse University’s School of Visual and Performing Arts, uses a plum tree as a base, or root stock, and then grafts branches of other genetically similar fruit trees into incisions made in the trunk.

“I take a sliver off one of the trees that includes the bud,” he said in a TEDx Manhattan speech. “I insert it into a like-size incision in the working tree, tape it, let it sit and heal in all winter, then I prune it back and hope that it grows.”

The process demands a great deal of patience. In order to complete only one such tree, it takes nine years of nurturing the grafted branches. The result, however, is simply utopian: a single tree that comes into spectacular bloom with flowers of white, pink, and crimson in the springtime, and whose branches grow heavy with ripened peaches, apricots, plums, nectarines, cherries, and almonds in the summer.

“It started as an art project,” Van Aken told Time. “I wanted people to have this experience where a tree is blossoming in all these different colors or growing all these different kinds of fruit all at once.”

What began as a matter of aesthetics developed into a concerted conservation effort when he learned that hundreds of stone fruit could not be found in stores anywhere. Due to short shelf lives and inconsistencies in size, shape, and color, many varieties are rarely grown at all. Though Van Aken prefers to think of the project as a piece of living art, his success in chip grafting has presented an undeniable opportunity to preserve these less commonly harvested fruits.

Van Aken’s nurseries are therefore archives of the many types of heirloom, native, antique, and hybrid stone fruit excluded from popular commercial monoculture, which, in the pursuit of uniform quality, has sacrificed diversification.

“As an artwork,” he said, “it interrupts and transforms the every day. As a research project, it creates one of the first comprehensive timelines of when all of these varieties blossom in relationship to each other, which becomes important when we consider pollination.”

Van Aken’s trees now appear in orchards and art galleries alike, with a hard-earned price tag of $30,000 each. He plans to use proceeds earned from the project to create a protected grove that will ensure a future of continued promulgation for these stone fruit varieties.

“As a form of conservation,” he explained, “by taking all of these heirloom, antique, and native species, grafting them onto the “Trees of 40 Fruit,” and then placing them throughout the country, in some small way I’m creating my own type of diversity and preservation.”

Feature photo courtesy of Sandy Austin whanau.