Could a Tree of 40 Fruit Hold a Clue to Solving World Hunger?

Sam Van Aken originally created the Tree of 40 Fruit as an artwork. It’s blossomed into something else entirely: He’s inspired the government to reconsider the way we grow food.
Danielle Elliot
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Sam Van Aken originally created the Tree of 40 Fruit as an artwork. It’s blossomed into something else entirely: He’s inspired the government to reconsider the way we grow food.

Light rain is falling steadily as my flight lands in Syracuse, New York, on a Sunday in late October. It’s been a bit of a journey to get here, catching a cab to a train to a plane, just to see something that sounds simple: a tree. Sam Van Aken, an art professor at Syracuse University, meets me at the airport, offering me rain boots as we make the 15-minute drive to campus.

There, sitting on the edge of the main lawn, next to a chrome bike rack, is the tree. It’s about six years old and six feet tall. Half of its leaves have fallen; the others are turning various shades of burnt orange and red. It could easily be confused for the other trees along the sidewalk path. At least, from a distance it could be. Once I’m standing under it, though, I start to understand why hundreds of visitors flocked to this spot over the summer, and why the U.S. Department of Defense thinks this tree may hold a clue to solving world hunger. This is one amazing tree.

Pulling out a thick black three-ring binder, Van Aken shows me a hand-drawn sketch of the tree. Next to each branch is the name of a different type of fruit. These names are written in various colors, which, he explains, indicate what time of year the fruit will bloom. There are more than 75 names in all, and all are growing on this single tree. Walking back up to the tree, he helps me see the difference.

“These are apricots, so these have more of a heart shape. And then this is actually a nectarine, it has a more elongated leaf. European plum, it has these veins, this texture on the bottom,” he says. “The Asian plum varieties are more of a tear drop.”

Van Aken has been working on the tree for nearly a decade.

“Originally my plan was, it was a little crazy. It was, I’m going to do a tree with 100 fruit,” he adds. “And that was just, it was kind…” He trails off, shaking his head.

He introduced it to the world during a TEDx Manhattan talk in March and news rapidly spread across the Internet. By June, his inbox was inundated with requests for seeds and speaking engagements. In one sense it’s just a fruit tree. Seen another way, it’s a symbol of possibility and the endless potential of nature and man working together. By the summer, Van Aken will prune back the branches until there are 40 varieties of stone fruit. Peaches will grow next to apricots, plums, nectarines, cherries, even almonds. An entire orchard, in a single tree.

Roots of the Project

Van Aken grew up in a Pennsylvania Dutch farming family, learning to milk cows by the time he was 5 years old. His family had more than 200 dairy cows and crops covering more than 250 acres. At 16, he saw how quickly it can all fall apart when a bacterial infection forced them to kill off their entire dairy herd. Life on the farm instilled a tremendous work ethic in Van Aken, but he didn’t see a farming future and hightailed it out of there as soon as he was old enough. And yet even as he built a name for himself in the art world, he never lost his love for the land.

When he heard in 2009 that the New York State Agriculture Experiment Station was going to destroy its orchard, including more than 200 types of stone fruit trees, he was determined to save the various trees.

“Just the diversity of the taste. Some are just, they’ll hurt your teeth they’re so sweet,” he says. “Then there’s others that have a sour taste.” He mentions one variety that, when you bite into it, it tastes like a banana. By the time it hits the back of your mouth, it’s like a sour apple. You won’t find these at grocers because they don’t have the longest shelf life, but he doesn’t see that as a reason for us to lose the varieties entirely.

The orchard had been an important research tool when the Northeast was the main producer of plums, apricots and other stone fruit. But those days are long over, and the land was needed for the current research agenda. Van Aken wanted to preserve the varieties and convinced the university and the grant organization Creative Capital to fund the maintenance of the orchard for two years while he figured out what to do. The initial plan was to plant a new orchard in Maine, using a process called grafting to combine the branches of a few trees on the same trunk. Grafting is like surgery: you cut off a branch and replace it with the branch of another type of tree, then leave it to heal. Eventually, the tree thinks the new branch is one of its own.

By figuring out exactly when the trees blossomed in relation to each other, he could graft them together, and plant them next to each other, in a way that would turn the orchard into a piece of art in itself, blossoming in a perfectly-timed pattern throughout the year. But as the time came for the unveil, there was a problem.

On the test tree, he tells me, “One side blossomed, the other side was completely blank. I was like shit!”

Then the recession hit, and funding for the full orchard dried up as quickly as it’d come about. That’s when Van Aken had the idea to condense an entire orchard into a single tree. He toyed with the idea of grafting more than 100 types onto the same tree. But after much consideration, he decided on 40, a number that is important in all Western religions, government and pop culture.

“The metaphor of the tree makes it more than just a science project,” he explains.

Over the next few years, what started as an artwork blossomed into something else entirely: He’s inspired the government (and, presumably, private organizations) to reconsider the way we grow food.

Creating the Tree of 40 Fruit

After another 10-minute drive we arrive at the nursery, where Van Aken keeps a few dozen stock trees. Stock trees are basic trees that bare one type of fruit. There are also a few rows of Trees of 40 Fruit, in various stages of development. This is where the trees spend their first three years or so.

Van Aken relies on two types of grafting. The first is known as chip (or bud) grafting. In February, he cuts off a piece of the branch that contains healthy buds. He bundles them together and stores them in a freezer for the summer. In August, he will trim the healthy buds off of the host tree’s branch, then replace it with the buds that were stored. He wraps them in plastic (the same type that is used in sandwich bags) and leaves them to heal over the winter. The plastic traps sunlight, creating a mini greenhouse effect. Then, come spring, he cuts off other buds around the graft, so that the tree will send all of its nutrients to the grafted bud. It’s a way of tricking the tree and giving the grafted bud the advantage. He’ll prune them back in April, and hope that healthy branches grow and produce fruit that summer.

April is also when he performs the second type of grafting. This one is known as whip and tongue grafting. This requires cutting off branches from every stock tree that he has (one for each type of fruit). He makes a mirror-image cut on the host tree branch, so that they fit together like a puzzle. These grafts get wrapped in electric tape.

With a pocketknife, electric tape and the right technique, anyone could create a similar tree. In fact, all fruit trees are at some point grafted together, even the apple trees that line thousands of acres across New York State. The practice has been around for more than 2,000 years, yet Van Aken is the first known to combine so many varieties.

The Tree of 40 Fruit Today

The tree on campus — Van Aken’s original model — currently has branches of 75 varieties of stone fruit. Van Aken will prune it back to 40 before the summer bloom. He still designs it so that the branches will blossom at different times of year, in a pattern of sorts.

The campus tree is not blooming now, but pictures show loads of fruit lining the branches in summer. There are apricots next to plums. Almonds grow on a few of the trees that are still in the nursery. There are at least 15 of these trees now planted across the country, each bearing a unique combination of fruit.

These trees are beautiful and awe-inspiring, but they are also incredibly labor intensive. He jokes that he’s returned to his farming roots, spending more time worrying about the weather and how his trees are doing than just about anything else.

“April through August, it’s constant,” he says. “I live these trees.” When a Japanese beetle infestation threatened the nursery in 2011, he spent more than three hours each day just walking around picking beetles off of trees.

Despite a tremendous amount of interest, there are no seeds that can bear a Tree of 40 Fruit, and no potential to create one. Each tree, each branch, must be individually grafted. For now, each tree sells for $30,000, a price that is split between Van Aken and the gallery and covers three years worth of additional grafting. Given the number of hours put into each tree, this is clearly a passion project, not a profitable endeavor.

That three-year commitment makes him selective in who is allowed to buy the trees. He talks of cutting back on travel, but also mentions potential groves in Singapore and Dubai. As word of the tree spread this summer, strange things happened. Visitors flocked to Syracuse. The fruit was gone within three weeks as everyone wanted a taste — but this part, at least, was cool with Van Aken.

He also enjoyed reading letters from people who were inspired by the tree, including a young woman in the U.K. who said she had all but given up. Reading about the tree gave her new hope.

Then there were other emails, like those that came in after USA Today wrote an article explaining how to graft your own tree of 40 fruit. They meant well, but they didn’t give enough detail, leading hundreds of readers to email Van Aken asking why they were failing. A woman who never contacted Van Aken created a website asking, “Is your marriage like the tree of 40 fruit?” Another article reported that the tree could be the answer to world hunger.

Van Eken shakes his head at this notion. Unless there is an expert on hand, or someone willing to learn the intricacies of grafting, it is unlikely that they will successfully duplicate the Tree of 40 Fruit — but that’s not to say that the tree has no potential social impact.

“These trees will not end world hunger, but I like to think it’s a symbol,” he says. “Maybe it will insight the type of thinking that would lead to that.”

Towards Ending World Hunger

Two days after my visit, Van Aken will speak to a group of scientists from the Department of Defense’s DARPA. They contacted him in mid-September, with hopes that he can work as a creative consultant. (At first he had to laugh. What was a guy who spent so much of his time at punk shows and at one point lived in an old gas station in Oregon going to teach DARPA scientists?)

They will discuss enormous questions, starting with “rethinking food and food industries,” he tells me as we are sitting at the large table in his studio, located in a building adjacent to the nursery. The space offers a window into his previous projects, into the seeds of the Tree of 40 Fruit, and a glimpse of the depth of Van Eken’s creativity.

On the cluttered bookshelves to our left are pieces of plastic fruit, a pear and an apple. Behind us, resting on the floor, is a large framed copy of a seed packet graph. These were his original grafting projects, before the Tree of 40 Fruit was even a concept. He grafted together the plastic fruit. He grafted together the seed packets. Hanging on a clothesline along the right side of the room, above the freezer that holds bundles of tree branches, are images of clouds. That’s part of his next project. It’s clear that he is always juggling multiple works of art; his mind is constantly connecting a web of ideas that are related but disparate. Investors have inquired about making Tree of 40 a profitable venture, but he’s not interested. He has too many projects swirling around to dedicate himself to just one. And so, the exit strategy.

When he speaks at the Department of Defense about approaching world hunger, he plans to touch on the need to help people reconnect with the land. “After World War II, 50 percent of the U.S. had a connection to agriculture,” he says. “Now, it’s less than three percent.”

Where the Project Goes From Here

On his laptop he pulls up a Wikipedia page explaining “Streuobstweise.” Directly translated, this German word means “meadow orchard.” But Streuobstweises are unique in that they are community run. Bringing them back, he believes, could be the first step.

The world is quickly losing many varieties of fruit, not because people don’t like the flavors, but because there is not enough demand to support an entire orchard of each type of plum, apricot, nectarine, or other stone fruit. People have grown accustomed to seeing the same fruits in supermarkets, and they tend to buy what they’re used to. If supermarkets and small distributors were certain that they could sell varieties, they would be more willing to grow them.

Van Aken sees Streuobstweises as an opportunity to create community-run orchards that have an established partnership with distributors. The partnerships would create enough capital to maintain the orchard, while also allowing locals to enjoy the fruits of the community orchard.

At the DOD, he’ll suggest planting these in place of creating city parks, a move that would be better for the health of the community and the tax budget. The grass that dominates the parks is costly to maintain and requires so many chemicals. What if they were replaced with orchards that produced the same recreational space while also bearing fruit? The first Streuobstweise is already being planted at Thomson Point in Maine. It will start as a Tree of 40 Fruit Streuobstweise, but eventually expand to singular trees.

Each Streuobstweise would have an accompanying book that explains the varieties in the orchard, how to care for them, and how to graft them together. The orchards would also serve as educational centers where children can learn basic skills, like how to plant a seed in soil. In essence, communities would farm together, without individual community members having to return to the farm.

“Farming is the biggest, I think, the biggest gamble because you’re gambling your livelihood and your family’s well being on the whim of nature,” he says.

He doesn’t see the U.S. ever becoming the agricultural society that it once was. But if every child at least understands the basics of growing, of planting a seed in soil and seeing it blossom into nourishing food, perhaps we can at least become a healthier society once again. 

Learn more about the Tree of 40 Fruit at Sam Van Aken's website.

Top photo credit: Danielle Elliot