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.

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.”

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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