Grafting turns trees into living works of art


When most of us think of horticultural artwork, paintings of flowers or sculpture may first come to mind. Topiary and bonsai turn plants into works of art, and so can landscape design. But contemporary artist Sam Van Aken has taken horticultural art in a new direction with his Tree of 40 Fruit project.

We were introduced to this project because my husband grafts fruit trees. His grafting is practical, letting us have lots of different varieties of pears and apples on small trees that oldsters like us can easily harvest even if our orchard is just confined to a corner of a large city lot. But Van Aken, who uses the family farm in Reading, Pa., as his production studio, uses traditional grafting to produce painterly trees that sport dozens of kinds of stone fruits — plums, peaches, nectarines, peaches and even cherries and almonds. His aim is to look at how something remains the same but also changes.

“I approach art as a situation,” Van Aken explains, “rather than create an image and have people perceive it.”

He started his horticultural art in 2008 by grafting vegetables, then moved on to trees, developing root stock and scion sources (donor branches) for each fruit and nut he grafts. He’s also developed a detailed timeline of when each kind of his 250 fruit varieties blossoms and ripens its fruit.

Van Aken teaches at Syracuse University in New York, and some of his trees are planted there. More are displayed in public locations and private collections around New England, the Mid-Atlantic states and select spots across the country. Van Aken not only uses his own scion resources but collects samples from the areas where his trees are to be planted. He sees this adding to his work by making every tree he creates an archive of local orchard history.

It takes about five years to graft and develop a single Tree of 40 specimen. Van Aken personally tends his living works of art twice a year.

There are no artists here, but we do have a miniature nectarine that we have tended for decades. I don’t pretend we can use it to create the living paintings Van Aken has — bursts of flowers that float together in clouds of magenta and pink and white when his art trees bloom. We probably can’t reproduce the symphony of leaf colors that may follow the floral display, either. But we could add branches full of plums or peaches or apricots to our little tree —just enough to provide a taste of ripe, juicy, home grown bliss for two.
    Stone fruit trees are notoriously brittle, and before my dream of creating a tiny fruit factory comes true we have to repot our tree. This isn’t as easy as it might sound, so we’re plotting methods and ordering a new pot for our little baby. If it survives the change of quarters, we’ll start our grafting plan and see what we can create here in our own back yard.

Our grafted trees don’t have the artistry of Van Aken’s creations, but they do reveal secrets when autumn arrives and gold, green and rosy red apples dot a single tree. The artist has changed how I look at my trees, which I think was his aim in creating his. (There’s a link to a tree photo on the Garden Club website.)



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