Sam Van Aken: The Tree of Forty Fruits at TEDxManhattan (Transcript)

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Full transcript of contemporary artist Sam Van Aken’s TEDx Talk: The Tree of Forty Fruits at TEDxManhattan conference.

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Sam Van Aken – Contemporary artist

The Tree of Forty Fruit is a single fruit tree that grows over 40 different varieties of stone fruits, including peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, cherries and this year we’ll know if it grows almonds. Throughout the majority of the year it’s a normal looking fruit tree until spring when it blossoms in all these variegated tones of pink and white and crimson. It returns to an ordinary looking fruit tree until it starts to grow 40 different types of fruit.

In order to start this project I realized that I needed to collect hundreds of varieties of stone fruits. And after scouring New York and finding only a few growers that were actually growing stone fruits, I realized the extent to which we’ve created these massive monocultures. To give you an example, the majority of stone fruits now are grown in the Central Valley in California, whereas the majority of apples are grown in New York and Washington State.

The one place where I was able to find stone fruits was at this orchard at the New York State agricultural experiment station in Geneva. It turns out that central New York during the 19th century was one of the largest producers of stone fruits. And that this one single orchard was the 150 to 200 year history of that industry and contained all of the heirloom, native, hybrid, and antique varieties. The problem was is that they were going to tear this orchard out due to a lack of funding.

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Up until that point I grew up on a farm, but I hadn’t really thought about farming for about 20 years, until I found out they were going to tear this orchard out. And for some reason I felt that it was a tragedy. And so I picked up the lease on the orchard and preserved it until I could figure out what to do with all the varieties.

And so this is my nursery. I keep dwarf stock trees, or what I call stock trees where over the past 5 years I’ve methodically taken all of the heirloom, antique and native species and grafted them onto my trees. From there, this nursery also is where I grow the Tree of Forty Fruit.

And so I start the Tree of Forty Fruit as rootstock, where I take one of the varieties from one of my stock trees, put it onto a root structure. After 2 years it’s pruned back to create an open center or vase shape with 4 or 5 primary branches. After two more years it looks something like this. So everywhere where you see white paint that’s where a different branch is.

The process I use for doing the grafting is called “chip grafting”. And for that I take a sliver off of one of the trees that includes the bud. I insert it a like size incision in the working tree, tape it, let it sit and heal in all winter and then I prune it back and hope that it grows.

A few more years — so this is probably about 5 to 6 years total. The tree looks something like this. You can see the red branches that indicate where a different variety grows. This is how the trees are then diagramed. They’re all color-coded diagrams to show you the years and what variety.

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So I work with over 250 varieties of stone fruit now. What I’ve done is I’ve created this sort of comprehensive timeline of when they blossom in relationship to each other. So that that way I can design and essentially sculpt the tree and how it blossoms. Eventually those blossoms become fruit. And so these are plums that I took from just one of the Tree of Forty Fruit in just one week in August. For a variety of reasons we continue to lose variety and diversity in the fruit that’s available for us. And working with commercial growers I found that the rationale in that and in what varieties are actually grown is determined by how long it will keep.

The second is the size. Is it a single serving size? The third is how is its presentation? That is the color. People generally don’t like a yellow plum. And then finally, after all that’s considered is the taste. That’s the reason why there’s thousands of stone fruit varieties, but yet only a few are actually ever seen at a market.

And so I look at the Tree of Forty Fruit as an artwork, a research project, and a form of conservation. As an artwork, what it does is it interrupts and transforms the everyday. As a research project, it creates one of the first comprehensive timelines of when all these varieties blossom in relationship to each other, which becomes important when we consider pollination.

And finally as a form of conservation, by taking all of these heirloom, antique and native species, grafting them onto the Trees of Forty Fruit and then placing them throughout the country, in some small way I’m creating my own type of diversity and preservation.

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Thank you.