Sam Van Aken preserves New York’s stone fruit heritage

Image courtesy Sam Van Aken StudioApricots, European plums and Asian plum varieties share space on Sam Van Aken’s ‘Tree of 40 Fruit.’

Sometimes we follow a strange route to reach the garden. Sam Van Aken, for example, had made a career as a sculptor, winning all sorts of awards and fellowships and securing a position as a professor of studio art at Syracuse University. Yet always informing his art was Sam’s childhood experiences growing up on a Pennsylvania dairy farm. In particular, there were the stories of his great grandfather, who made his living grafting peach trees. Sam never met this gifted individual, but the stories stuck in his head. About 10 years ago, Sam decided to take up this craft himself, and began to assemble what he called his “Tree of 40 Fruit,” by grafting scions of 40 different stone fruits (peaches, plums, cherries, nectarines and apricots) onto a single rootstock tree.

Sam’s intention had been to arrest viewers with a tree composed of a patchwork of different colored blossoms and fruits. What he fell into, however, was a project in horticultural conservation. He had hoped to use fruit cultivars that had grown in the upstate New York region for his project, yet despite the fact that New York had once been the second state in the nation for stone fruit production, Sam had trouble assembling the requisite diversity of types because so few were still grown there. Indeed, his research uncovered that this was part of a very troubling trend. In the 19th century, American orchardists and farmers had grown some 2,000 different types of peaches, for example. Yet Sam could find no more than a couple of dozen types still in cultivation nationwide.

Eventually, by contacting growers with an enthusiasm for heirloom fruits, Sam did collect the scionwood, the materials he needed for grafting onto his tree. Such enthusiasts were glad to share, Sam notes, but he was troubled by the fact that most of them had no one to carry on their work. Indeed, the orchards with more interesting fruits were disappearing at a troubling rate. For Sam, what had been the mechanics of an art project became a passion. He began collecting and grafting more scionwood, not only creating more “Trees of 40 Fruit” for other locations but also creating a fruit collection of his own.

Currently, he is creating on Governors Island a historic “Open Orchard” for the city of New York, grafting onto a collection of 50 trees the peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, cherries and apples that were historically grown in the five boroughs before they were overrun with buildings. According to Sam, at least one relic of this past is still visible in the highway system of the city. The veer to the west that Broadway makes on its way north from lower Manhattan was originally designed to avoid a prized orchard growing in the Bowery (which is an Anglicization of an old Dutch word for “farm”).

The public will be invited to sample the fruits borne by Sam’s Open Orchard (the trees are due to be planted out in fall of 2021). The fruits out of reach from the ground will be shared with local chefs, for Sam has also developed an interest in reproducing recipes originally created with the heirloom fruits. The heirloom flavors, he says can be remarkable. He cites in particular a fruit with a Manhattan origin, the Washington Gage Plum. Supposedly originating with a shoot that sprouted from a lightning-struck tree, the Washington Gage has a flavor, according to Sam, as complex as that of a fine wine, with a rich smell when tree-ripened, followed by a sweet explosion in the mouth and then a fine and memorable finish.

As well as the 50 trees destined for the Open Orchard, Sam is growing 150 more in the Governors Island nursery. These, onto which have been grafted fruits from particular neighborhoods, will be distributed to appropriate community gardens. Sam’s seeking a home for a specimen of a ‘Newtown Pippin’ apple, for example, near the former location of the estate in Queens on which this apple originated around the turn of the 18th century. In this way, residents throughout the city will be able to explore the flavors that once flourished in their neighborhoods. The original “boweries” may be long gone, but in this way their histories will live on.

For more information about Sam Van Aken and his work with fruit trees, visit Berkshire Botanical Garden’s “Growing Greener” podcast at thomaschristophergardens.com/podcast.

Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden, located in Stockbridge, Mass. Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books.

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