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Heroes

Meet the tree that's wowing folks all over the country with its unusual bounty of fruit.

Sam Van Aken is the creator of the Tree of 40 Fruit, a single tree that grows 40 different types of fruit.

Van Aken is an artist and professor at Syracuse University, and his latest project just might be his most delicious yet.

Van Aken's Tree of 40 Fruit grow a wide variety of stone fruits (i.e., fruits with large pits in the center), including cherries, plums, peaches, nectarines, apricots, and even almonds.



This is an artist's rendering of the full-grown tree. Each one takes over a decade to mature. Photo by Sam Van Aken, courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Art.

It's all possible through an intricate process called "chip grafting."

Van Aken takes a sliver off one of his dozens of small fruit trees.

All GIFS from National Geographic.

Then, he makes a small cut on the branch of the established tree to bring them together.

Finally, he uses a special tape to seal everything, creating almost a small greenhouse right at the incision.

With some sunlight, water, and TLC, the two plants will grow together.

Hundreds of chip grafts and several years later, you have a Tree of 40 Fruit.

Since each variety of fruit blossoms at a different time, Van Aken meticulously plots the location of each branch, essentially designing and sculpting the tree from the ground up.


Van Aken's road map for Tree 75. Image by Sam Van Aken, courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Art.

Each tree takes years to mature and develop, which means Van Aken has over a dozen trees in progress.

Tree 75 blooming in 2012. Photo by Sam Van Aken, courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Art

He likes to plant the trees in public spaces to encourage inquiry and spark conversation.

The trees can be seen everywhere from the campus of Syracuse University, to a hotel and gallery in Bentonville, Arkansas. There's even a small grove of eight trees at Thompson Point, a mixed-use retail area in Portland, Maine.


Tree Number 75 at Syracuse University in 2013. Photo by Sam Van Aken, courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Art.

Each tree is meant to be shared, enjoyed, and pondered. The entire project toys with the viewer's concept of reality, and Van Aken enjoys straddling the border of truth and science fiction.

"Once they happen upon these trees, they would start to question, 'Why are the leaves shaped differently? Why are they different colors?'" he told National Geographic in a video profile earlier this year.

But this project is bigger than art — there are conservation implications as well.

Many of the seeds and plants Van Aken used for the project are no longer used by commercial growers because of size, shelf life, and, yes, even aesthetics. As Van Aken said in a recent TED talk, "People generally don't like a yellow plum."

Delicious yellow plums that Big Produce doesn't want you to have. Photo by Sam Van Aken, courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Art.

The Tree of 40 Fruit puts the seeds and plants back to work. In an email with Upworthy, Van Aken said he's using proceeds from the sale of his trees to create an heirloom fruit orchard and field guide to study the precious plants.

The Tree of 40 Fruit is a living, breathing tasty work of art. And you can see it come to life in this short video by National Geographic:


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