For most of the year, the Trees of 40 Fruits, of which there are dozens, look like any other tree. But in spring, dozens of shades of pinks and reds and whites begin to appear, and by the end of the summer, each one has produced a harvest of over 40 different kinds of stone fruit.
The trees are the work of award-winning contemporary artist and Syracuse University art professor Sam Van Aken, who told Epicurious.com that "first and foremost I see the tree as an artwork." But that doesn't mean his living masterpieces aren't a fascinating study in agriculture and culinary history.
"As the project evolved, it took on more goals," Van Aken said. "In trying to find different varieties of stone fruit to create the Tree of 40 Fruit, I realized that for various reasons, including industrialization and the creation of enormous monocultures, we are losing diversity in food production and that heirloom, antique, and native varieties that were less commercially viable were disappearing."
Although each tree ends up with around 40 species of stone fruit, including peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, cherries, and almonds—which Van Aken chose for the project because of their great diversity and inter-compatibility—he works with over 250 varieties, plotting the timelines of each and selecting species to create artwork out of the different blossoms.
The grafting together of all these species takes about five years, and Van Aken visits the trees—which can be found at museums, community centers, and private art collections from Massachusetts to California—twice a year for pruning. And if you're wondering, yes, all the fruit is completely edible (and presumably delicious), at least now that Van Aken has solved the problem of hungry deer destroying the crop.
National Geographic spoke with Van Aken about the years-long care that goes into each of the trees, which he considers living art. Get a glimpse of the grafting process in the video below:
A version of this story ran in 2014; it has been updated for 2022.