August 12, 2014

A Tree That Grows 40 Kinds Of Fruit


Using a common technique called grafting, artist Sam Van Aken is developing a tree that bears a variety of different fruits. 

Sam Van Aken envisions a tree with blooms of pink, purple, fuchsia and red that bears 40 different kinds of fruit.

But this tree isn't just a figment of his imagination — he's hard at work making "Tree of 40 Fruit" a reality.

"I'm an artist. So the whole project really began with this idea of creating a tree that would blossom in these different colors and would bear these multitude of fruit," he told NPR.

Van Aken, an associate professor in Syracuse University's art department, isn't creating this tree through genetic engineering. Instead, he's using a technique that's thousands of years old: grafting.

Grafting involves collecting young shoots or cuttings from trees and then inserting these budding branches into strategic points on a base tree.

These grafts are taped into place and allowed to bond with the tree, drawing water and nutrients from it like any other branch.

If the grafts take to the tree, they'll start to grow again in the spring.

According to Van Aken, grafting is often successful because of the similar chromosomal structure of stone fruit trees.

Stone fruits are those with a pit in the middle that surrounds the seed. Examples include apples, peaches, cherries and plums.

Van Aken has created 16 hybridized fruit trees that are located throughout the country. The trees' branches are composed of a variety of mostly antique and native stone fruit varieties.

He plans to place his first tree in an urban setting at Thomas Point in Portland, Maine.

Van Aken has worked with 250 varieties of stone fruit and says his project has really become "about preserving some of these antique and heirloom varieties" of fruit.

Currently, his trees are being sold to create an heirloom fruit orchard, and he plans to create a field guide with pictures and descriptions of each type of tree.

"Through the orchard — which would be open to growers, nurseries and the general public — I hope to reintroduce many of these forgotten varieties," he said.

Grafting fruit trees isn't a new practice. The TomTato — a plant that produces both cherry tomatoes and potatoes — can be purchased by any gardener.

Also, many commercial fruit trees are grafted for mass production. Farmers choose a tree that will grow well in their climate and then other trees' seedlings are are grafted onto the base tree’s branches.

And in San Francisco, guerilla gardeners are grafting fruit-bearing tree limbs onto fruitless trees along city sidewalks.

By Laura Moss at MNN

Update from Nat Geo:

Sam Van Aken, an artist and professor at Syracuse University, uses "chip grafting" to create trees that each bear 40 different varieties of stone fruits, or fruits with pits.

 The grafting process involves slicing a bit of a branch with a bud from a tree of one of the varieties and inserting it into a slit in a branch on the "working tree," then wrapping the wound with tape until it heals and the bud starts to grow into a new branch. 

Over several years he adds slices of branches from other varieties to the working tree. In the spring the "Tree of 40 Fruit" has blossoms in many hues of pink and purple, and in the summer it begins to bear the fruits in sequence—Van Aken says it's both a work of art and a time line of the varieties' blossoming and fruiting. 

He's created more than a dozen of the trees that have been planted at sites such as museums around the U.S., which he sees as a way to spread diversity on a small scale.

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