Compass, Mirabelle, Long John, and Early Golden—they’re not a fleet of ships headed for the high seas. These are actually a few of the plum varieties artist Sam Van Aken worked with while creating his “Tree of 40 Fruit,” which as its name suggests, bears 40 varieties of stone fruit, including plums, peaches, nectarines, apricots, and cherries.
She also became intrigued with the shrinking varieties of fruits available, as large commercial growers strive to find the fastest-growing, most pest-resistant, and most shipping-hardy produce. “New York state, apparently, had been the plum capital in the ‘20s. They’re not growing plums there now to as large of an extent, and they aren’t growing the varieties they did.”
Van Aken faced a major challenge in finding all the varieties he could so he could then graft them onto a single base tree. It sounds like the recipe for a fruity Frankenstein, but grafting is actually a normal part of agriculture. The Farmer’s Almanac explains, “Most good [plum] trees come from grafting a known producer onto a new rootstock.”
Mignoni says that re-introducing people to the idea of grafting is one of her favorite parts of this project. She explains that in plums, for example, “there is a lot of genetic variability in the seed, so if you plant a plum seed … you can’t guarantee that you’ll get the fruit you want from the seed unless you graft the specific variety.”
Van Aken eventually began working in orchards at an agriculture experiment station in New York where he was able to graft the fruits he needed onto the base tree. (And in reality, there are several trees in the years-long process of becoming a 40-fruit tree.)