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How one tree grows 40 different kinds of fruit | Sam Van Aken

How one tree grows 40 different kinds of fruit | Sam Van Aken


100 years ago, there were 2,000 varieties of peaches, nearly 2,000 different varieties of plums and almost 800 named varieties
of apples growing in the United States. Today, only a fraction of those remain, and what is left is threatened
by industrialization of agriculture, disease and climate change. Those varieties that are threatened
include the Blood Cling, a red-flesh peach brought
by Spanish missionaries to the Americas, then cultivated by Native
Americans for centuries; an apricot that was brought
by Chinese immigrants who came to work
on the Transcontinental Railroad; and countless varieties of plums
that originated in the Middle East and were then brought by Italian,
French and German immigrants. None of these varieties are indigenous. In fact, almost all of our fruit trees
were brought here, including apples and peaches and cherries. So more than just food, embedded within these fruit
is our culture. It’s the people who cared for
and cultivated them, who valued them so much
that they brought them here with them as a connection to their home, and it’s the way that they’ve passed
them on and shared them. In many ways, these fruit are our story. And I was fortunate enough
to learn about it through an artwork that I created
entitled the “Tree of 40 Fruit.” The Tree of 40 Fruit is a single tree that grows 40 different
varieties of stone fruit. So that’s peaches, plums, apricots,
nectarines and cherries all growing on one tree. It’s designed to be a normal-looking tree
throughout the majority of the year, until spring, when it blossoms
in pink and white and then in summer,
bears a multitude of different fruit. I began the project
for purely artistic reasons: I wanted to change
the reality of the everyday, and to be honest, create this startling moment
when people would see this tree blossom in all these different colors and bear all of these different fruit. I created the Tree of 40 Fruit
through the process of grafting. I’ll collect cuttings
in winter, store them, and then graft them
onto the ends of branches in spring. In fact, almost all
fruit trees are grafted, because the seed of a fruit tree
is a genetic variant of the parent. So when we find a variety
that we really like, the way that we propagate it
is by taking a cutting off of one tree and putting it onto another — which is kind of crazy to think that every single Macintosh apple
came from one tree that’s been grafted over and over
from generation to generation. But it also means that fruit trees
can’t be preserved by seed. I’ve known about grafting
as long as I can remember. My great-grandfather made a living
grafting peach orchards in Southeastern Pennsylvania. And although I never met him, any time anyone would mention his name, they were quick to note that he knew how to graft as if he had
a magical or mystical capability. I decided on the number 40
for the Tree of 40 Fruit because it’s found
throughout Western religion as not the quantifiable dozen
and not the infinite but a number that’s beyond counting. It’s a bounty or a multitude. But the problem was that when I started, I couldn’t find 40 different
varieties of these fruit, and this is despite the fact
that I live in New York state, which, a century ago, was one of the leading
producers of these fruit. So as they were tearing out
research orchards and old, vintage orchards, I would collect branches off them and graft them onto trees in my nursery. So this is what the Tree of 40 Fruit
look like when they were first planted, and this is what they look like
six years later. This is definitely not a sport
of immediate gratification — (Laughter) It takes a year to know
if a graft has succeeded; it takes two to three years
to know if it produces fruit; and it takes up to eight years
to create just one of the trees. Each of the varieties grafted
to the Tree of 40 Fruit has a slightly different form
and a slightly different color. And I realized that by creating a timeline
of when all these blossomed in relationship to each other, I can essentially shape or design
how the tree appears during spring. And this is how they appear during summer. They produce fruit from June
through September. First is cherries, then apricots, Asian plums, nectarines and peaches, and I think I forgot one
in there, somewhere … (Laughter) Although it’s an artwork
that exists outside of the gallery, as the project continues, it’s been conservation
by way of the art world. As I’ve been asked to create
these in different locations, what I’ll do is I’ll research varieties that originated or were
historically grown in that area, I’ll source them locally
and graft them to the tree so that it becomes an agricultural history
of the area where they’re located. And then the project got picked up online, which was horrifying and humbling. The horrifying part
was all of the tattoos that I saw of images of the Tree of 40 Fruit. (Laughter) Which I was like, “Why would
you do that to your body?” (Laughter) And the humbling part
was all of the requests that I received from pastors, from rabbis and priests who asked to use the tree
as a central part within their service. And then it became a meme — and the answer to that question
is “I hope not?” [Is your marriage
like the Tree of 40 Fruit?] (Laughter) Like all good memes, this has led to an interview
on NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” and as a college professor,
I thought I peaked — like, that was the pinnacle
of my career — but you never know who’s listening to NPR. And several weeks after the NPR interview, I received an email
from the Department of Defense. The Defense Advanced Research
Project Administration invited me to come talk about
innovation and creativity, and it’s a conversation that quickly
shifted to a discussion of food security. You see, our national security
is dependent upon our food security. Now that we’ve created these monocultures that only grow a few
varieties of each crop, if something happens
to just one of those varieties, it can have a dramatic impact
upon our food supply. And the key to maintaining
our food security is preserving our biodiversity. 100 years ago, this was done
by everybody that had a garden or a small stand of trees
in their backyard, and grew varieties that were
passed down through their family. These are plums from just one Tree
of 40 Fruit in one week in August. Several years into the project, I was told that I have one of the largest
collections of these fruit in the Eastern United States, which, as an artist,
is absolutely terrifying. (Laughter) But in many ways,
I didn’t know what I had. I discovered that the majority
of the varieties I had were heirloom varieties, so those that were grown before 1945, which is seen as the dawn
of the industrialization of agriculture. Several of the varieties dated back
thousands and thousands of years. And finding out how rare they were, I became obsessed
with trying to preserve them, and the vehicle for this became art. I would go into old, vintage orchards
before they were torn out and I would save the bowl
or the trunk section that possessed the original graft union. I started doing pressings
of flowers and the leaves to create herbarium specimens. I started to sequence the DNA. But ultimately, I set out
to preserve the story through these copper-plate etchings
and letterpress descriptions. To tell the story of the George IV peach, which took root between
two buildings in New York City — someone walks by, tastes it, it becomes a major commercial
variety in the 19th century because it tastes just that good. Then all but vanishes, because it doesn’t ship well and it doesn’t conform
to modern agriculture. But I realize that as a story,
it needs to be told. And in the telling of that story, it has to include the experience
of being able to touch, to smell and to taste those varieties. So I set out to create an orchard to make these fruit
available to the public, and have the aim of placing them
in the highest density of people that I could possibly find. Naturally, I started looking for an acre
of land in New York City — (Laughter) which, in retrospect,
seemed, like, rather ambitious, and probably the reason why nobody
was returning my phone calls or emails — (Laughter) until eventually, four years later,
I heard back from Governors Island. So Governors Island is a former naval base that was given
to the City of New York in 2000. And it opened up all of this land just a five-minute ferry ride
from New York. And they invited me to create a project
that we’re calling the “Open Orchard” that will bring back fruit varieties that haven’t been grown
in New York for over a century. Currently in progress, The Open Orchard
will be 50 multigrafted trees that possess 200 heirloom
and antique fruit varieties. So these are varieties that originated
or were historically grown in the region. Varieties like the Early Strawberry apple, which originated on 13th Street
and Third Avenue. Since a fruit tree
can’t be preserved by seed, The Open Orchard will act
like a living gene bank, or an archive of these fruit. Like the Tree of 40 Fruit, it will be experiential; it will also be symbolic. Most importantly, it’s going to invite
people to participate in conservation and to learn more about their food. Through the Tree of 40 Fruit, I’ve received thousands
and thousands of emails from people, asking basic questions
about “How do you plant a tree?” With less than three percent
of the population having any direct tie to agriculture, the Open Orchard
is going to invite people to come take part in public programming
and to take part in workshops, to learn how to graft, to grow,
to prune and to harvest a tree; to take part in fresh eating
and blossom tours; to work with local chefs
to learn how to use these fruit and to recreate centuries-old dishes that many of these varieties
were grown specifically for. Extending beyond the physical
site of the orchard, it will be a cookbook
that compiles all of those recipes. It will be a field guide that talks about the characteristics
and traits of those fruit, their origin and their story. Growing up on a farm,
I thought I understood agriculture, and I didn’t want anything to do with it. So I became an artist — (Laughter) But I have to admit that it’s something
within my own DNA. And I don’t think that I’m the only one. 100 years ago, we were all much more
closely tied to the culture, the cultivation
and the story of our food, and we’ve been separated from that. The Open Orchard creates the opportunity not just to reconnect
to this unknown past, but a way for us to consider
what the future of our food could be. Thank you. (Applause)

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

  1. Wow so interesting!
    But bees maybe confused. ๐Ÿ˜…hahaha

  2. I was just on Governors Island and was wondering about all those farms! Iโ€™ll have to go back and see his trees!

  3. If you want plenty of land in a city please try Detroit, Michigan. I don't live there anymore but that would be a perfect place to plant these trees. Anyone from Detroit out there ?? You can set up a go fund me on this and make this city blossom again.

  4. This 40 fruit tree is in my opinion the perfect crop for a future Mars colony. Many different fruits in one place, perfect!

  5. I still remember how my late elementary science teacher made 4 colour paper flower on a single tree, agriculture and botany are arts ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. This is so incredible!! I love that you did this!!! And I love that TED gave him the platform to let us know!!!

  7. Dear Sam,

    What a fabulous & inspiring story of how art created a connection to our story as a people of many cultures, of different ethnicities & how food & recipes, through all the โ€œlostโ€ varieties of fruit! I was SO excited to listen to you explain how you came up with the idea, how it evolved & how you discovered a way to experiment with bringing these vignettes together to create a stunning mosaic. The Tree of 40 Fruits is a legacy you created, & Iโ€™m quite certain youโ€™ll continue to inspire future generations to go on to experiment in new ways! I did not want your talk to end.

    One last point I want to share with you, as youโ€™re likely one of the few people who would be interested in this. Years ago, in a used book shop in New England, I found an old book, pulled it out, dusted it off, & I guessed no one had taken the time to look at it in many years. I sat down on the floor, & I began looking through the pages of this crimson book that captured my attention. It was about the MULTITUDE of varieties of apples in the 19th century. It was meant as a guide for the people who kept apple orchards. There are beautiful colorised photos, as well as diagrams, & of course discussions of grafting. Not only is the information in the book invaluable, the outside is decorative & inviting. I treasure it. After watching your talk today, I hold it even closer to my heart. THANK YOU for all youโ€™ve done & will no doubt do in the future. I wish you every success, & as you indicated, youโ€™ve inspired so many others to consider what a plum tastes like that was brought from Italy in the 1800s! How fascinating!

    Warmest regards,
    Belle ๐Ÿฆ‹

  8. Those trees have been around for years!! They are called 'fruit salad' trees here in Australia and can be purchased easily. Really great way of getting the public more involved in how our food is produced and may help to get people to become more earth friendly when growing food!! If we don't change our farming habits we are going to destroy this planet and ourselves at the same time!!!!

  9. Surprised to learn there is no tissue rejection between fruit trees , itโ€™s not like I could amputate an arm and graft a chimp one on

  10. He can't see the forest for the trees!! If it wouldn't be for our military USA would be a third world country..I hate to tell all you people but there is a invention on the horizon that is going to neutralize all the electrical power and all conventional and nuclear weapons in the world!! Then we will see what country and people will survive..the USA will self destruct in a matter of weeks..a mule and a plow will be worth 100 times it's weight in gold..I hope I am dead because I am to old to deal with it!! If someone would make a tv series about such an event it would be super helpful for everyone in America..but no!! They will keep making the crappy tv shows they have been making..I don't care because I can watch all the reruns of the good tv programs without getting my ears blasted with fake laughter and commercials..
    Just think about it!! No electricity or anything that runs on fossil fuel working in the whole world..how quiet and peaceful it will be. I hope and pray that I am dead because I grew up in South Louisiana without air conditioning..I can't imagine living without ac or a electric fan..all the creature comforts that we just don't appreciate anymore..oh well,that's my two cents worth..

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