Using grafting–essentially a limb transplant for plants–artist Sam Van Aken has turned a single tree into a whole orchard of stone fruit. His tree, called the Tree of 40 Fruit, is a bit like an arboreal deli counter.
“When I saw [grafting] done as a child, it was Dr. Seuss and Frankenstein and just about everything fantastic,” says Van Aken. If you grafted 40 arms and legs onto a human, it would be terrifying. But done to plants, this old technique makes something beautiful, if rather surreal.
The procedure is simple. You slice a nick into a branch on the host tree, insert a bud cut from a different donor tree, and wind the wound with tape. That’s about it. The scions (donor branches) are cut from trees in February of each year and (when possible) from the same region where the host tree lives. They are kept until spring when their buds are harvested and grafted. The plastic tape used to support and protect the graft also traps moisture, making a kind of miniature greenhouse.
Van Aken knows exactly when each variety of fruit will blossom, and the grafting patterns are “sculpted in such a way that they continuously blossom for over a month each spring,” like a slow-motion fireworks display.
On his trees you’ll find almonds, plums, peaches, nectarines and other stone fruit. Most of the fruit is rare heirloom or antique. That is, they’re not commonly cultivated varieties, which makes Van Aken’s project almost as much about conservation as it is about art.
The trees are meant to appear as hoaxes, a theme in Van Aken’s work. Of more than a dozen trees across the U.S., many are planted in parks or other public spaces where you might stumble upon them and “start to question, ‘why are the leaves shaped differently, why are they different colors?’” says Van Aken. In spring, you see all the different blossoms, and in summer the fruits look like a nightmare from a kids story.
It’s slow work. New trees have to reach three years old before they can be grafted. Van Aken doubles the number of branches every year, from four to eight to sixteen and so on, all while documenting the grafts with dense, annotated drawings. Making a tree takes right to nine years. It reminds me of my favorite Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
One side-effect of tree’s multi-fruit design is that there are always new fruits throughout the season. Van Aken says that the growers he has worked with think he’s nuts, as you have to keep going back to the same tree to harvest it. “Now I have a huge collection of plums and apricots,” he says.