Imagine one fruit tree in your backyard that produces 40 varieties of fruit: a 40 fruit tree!.
The picture above is a representation of what a fully blossomed “Tree of Forty Fruits” will look like. It is being created by Syracuse University professor Sam Van Aken, who grew up on a farm and decided to save hundreds of species of fruit from possible oblivion.
The boundaries between engineering and life sciences are becoming blurrier by the day. Engineers, biologists architects, you name it, are “crossing over” to use the knowledge and tools of other disciplines which had been heretofore out of sight and out of mind as possible sources to stimulate research. For Aken, this means blurring the lines between art, farming, conservation and sustainability.
Van Aken describes the project as a work of art because it stops people in their tracks when they see it and makes them ask questions. It is a research project because he is learning how to craft all these varieties of fruit onto one tree and learn their pollination, flowering and harvesting patterns. Finally, the project is protecting vulnerable species from extinction.
Van Aken’s interactions with commercial growers over time has taught him that fruit chosen for production and sale to supermarkets must meet certain narrow but important criteria. First is how long it keeps. Second is whether or not the fruit comes in a single serving size; this crowds out smaller and larger fruit varieties. Next, “presentation” or the fruit’s color. Finally, if the fruit has passed these hurdles, taste becomes a consideration. Van Aken describes how a yellow plum, for example, may taste much better in a blind taste test than a purple reddish plum, but uneducated consumers assume the more colorful variety tastes better, a misconception that could easily be cleared up with a bit of consumer education.
The Tree of Forty Fruit
Van Aken came across the diverse orchard of fruits in Geneva, New York, in the heart of the Finger Lakes as it was being scheduled for destruction. The orchard, with hundreds of species of plums and apricots, was part of the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station. He quickly picked up the lease.
Since his project began several years ago, Van Aken has increased the number of stone fruit, which contain a large stone like seed or pit like peaches, plums and cherries, to 250. Each 40-Fruit Tree takes about five years to develop as not all grafts take hold. Van Aken’s discovery of garlic and peppermint as deer repellents has sped up the process.
Van Aken’s goal is to plant his “Forty Fruit Trees” around the United States to to encourage people to think about biodiversity.
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