What a ‘Tree of 40 Fruit’ Tells Us About Agricultural Evolution

Compass, Mirabelle, Long John, and Early Golden—they’re not a fleet of ships headed for the high seas. These are actually a few of the plum varieties artist Sam Van Aken worked with while creating his “Tree of 40 Fruit,” which as its name suggests, bears 40 varieties of stone fruit, including plums, peaches, nectarines, apricots, and cherries.

At its core, this tree is art. Van Aken was inspired by the idea of a hoax, which he says “transforms reality.” He hopes, as he explains in the video, that people would stumble upon the tree and wonder. “Why are the leaves shaped differently? Why are they different colors?” In the spring, he imagines passersby would notice blossoms of varying colors, and in summer, they would see copious varieties of fruit growing on one tree. But it’s taken on a much bigger role than he anticipated: educating the public about how agriculture practices have changed over the centuries.

It’s sort of utopian—a garden of delights neatly packaged in a one-stop-shop. But when Van Aken went to make the tree, he discovered that the variety of fruit he sought was definitely not available at his neighborhood grocery.

“One of the biggest challenges for [Van Aken] as he decided to do this project was finding 40 different varieties of fruit. He realized what a monoculture it has been,” says Eileen Mignoni, a visual journalist who frequently works with National Geographic. She produced the video about Van Aken’s project after she heard about it because, “It just seemed an inherently visual story that hadn’t been done visually. It needed to be shown in life.”

She also became intrigued with the shrinking varieties of fruits available, as large commercial growers strive to find the fastest-growing, most pest-resistant, and most shipping-hardy produce. “New York state, apparently, had been the plum capital in the ‘20s. They’re not growing plums there now to as large of an extent, and they aren’t growing the varieties they did.”

Van Aken faced a major challenge in finding all the varieties he could so he could then graft them onto a single base tree. It sounds like the recipe for a fruity Frankenstein, but grafting is actually a normal part of agriculture. The Farmer’s Almanac explains, “Most good [plum] trees come from grafting a known producer onto a new rootstock.”

Mignoni says that re-introducing people to the idea of grafting is one of her favorite parts of this project. She explains that in plums, for example, “there is a lot of genetic variability in the seed, so if you plant a plum seed … you can’t guarantee that you’ll get the fruit you want from the seed unless you graft the specific variety.”

plum harvest

The 2011 plum harvest from the Tree of 40 Fruit. PHOTOGRAPH BY SAM VAN AKEN

Van Aken eventually began working in orchards at an agriculture experiment station in New York where he was able to graft the fruits he needed onto the base tree. (And in reality, there are several trees in the years-long process of becoming a 40-fruit tree.)

He starts the grafting process out slowly, fixing about 20 types of fruit on a tree at first, then planting it in a nursery. Then, “he’ll go back twice a year for the next three years to add additional varieties. He’ll add 60-70 and prune them back to 40,” says Mignoni.

And though he never intended “to make a statement about monocultures,” Mignoni says, he now feels responsible for propagating the diversity of all plants, along with his trees. “Because he’s had all these collections and has been told by other growers that he may be the only grower who has them … he feels like he can’t let them die. So he wants to create groves with all these different varieties that the public could sample and take home, and growers could try them and see if they want to expand their lines.”

Van Aken plans to plant the first of these sampling orchards in Freeport, Maine, this fall. He’s calling them Streuobstwiese, using the German name.

The next part of his plan? To publish a recipe book. Many of the antique and heirloom fruits growing on the 40 fruit tree “have recipes that were written for them that have been mostly forgotten,” says Mignoni.

This collection will allow the fruits to be fully appreciated—“so people will be able to taste how they tasted in the past.”

And if anyone is feeling more ambitious than simply baking a pie from scratch, the book will also include instructions on how to create a 40 fruit tree of your very own.

Becky Harlan is fruit fan and an associate web producer at National Geographic. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.