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This fall, pick ancient apples from a tree that also grows rare pears, plums, and peaches

In the spring of 2022, "The Open Orchard," a living art installation of 102 amalgamated trees, was unveiled to the public on Governors Island. (Photo: Emily Faber, The National Desk)
In the spring of 2022, "The Open Orchard," a living art installation of 102 amalgamated trees, was unveiled to the public on Governors Island. (Photo: Emily Faber, The National Desk)
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Sam Van Aken dreamt of planting an orchard, and the orchard that he imagined required a specific location to succeed. Finding it wasn't going to be easy.

“This is really delusional, but I was looking for an acre of land in New York City,” Van Aken said.

There’s a reason, of course, that lists outlining the best ways to greet fall in New York City often involve leaving the congested city altogether to seek out foliage-blanketed views sans skyscrapers looming in the distance and pick-your-own apple orchards stretching across ample fields, all billed as being “just outside” Manhattan until vans of tired hikers and cars loaded up with far more apples than anyone could ever use slow to a near-stop in the same Sunday evening traffic.

But Van Aken, a contemporary artist and art professor at Syracuse University, didn’t intend to place his orchard within city limits just to save everyone the trouble of a traffic jam. His ambitious location preference instead was directly tied to the fruits that he would be growing, a selection of varieties that had once flourished in New York City before falling out of favor and almost disappearing from existence altogether. He aimed to return these now-obscure fruits, in abundance, to the place where they had originated way back when.

The trees, though, would differ slightly from how they appeared in the 19th-century illustrations that Van Aken studied.

Rather than planting a pear tree next to an apple tree next to a peach tree, he'd reintroduce New Yorkers to these long-lost fruits by way of a mash-up unlike anything found at an upstate orchard. Just one of Van Aken's trees would produce a multitude of different fruits. The choice for visitors wouldn't be based solely on which apple appeared crispest or shiniest but whether they even wanted an apple, or if they'd prefer the pear dangling just one branch over.

It was the intrigue of this proposal, from both a purely artistic perspective and one centered on environmental preservation, that caught the eye of one of the few spots in New York City that actually had a significant amount of land to offer. In the spring of 2022, "The Open Orchard," a living art installation of 102 amalgamated trees, was unveiled to the public on Governors Island.

In February of 1867, New York City felt the loss of an irreplaceable piece of history.

A horse-drawn vehicle collision on the corner of Third Avenue and 13th Street sent one of the drays into a pear tree with such tremendous force that the tree split into two, littering the intersection with fragments of trunk and branches substantial enough to obstruct commutes. It was an accident that, on its own, would have likely been long forgotten, had the cart struck a different target or otherwise spared the 200-year-old pear tree that had been shipped all the way from Holland to New Amsterdam in a barrel and presented to Governor Peter Stuyvesant as, supposedly, the first grafted fruit tree on American soil.

For two centuries, Stuyvesant's pear tree had remained one of the area’s only true constants, deemed a relic worthy of protection while a city not yet overly concerned with landmarking had taken shape around its roots. It had watched wordlessly as new development disrupted its once-expansive view, as wars came and went, as the descendants of the enslaved people who had maintained Stuyvesant's 62 acres of farmland in what's now Manhattan was freed.

But after a life so lived, the pear tree had little left to give. Truth be told, the crash had merely hastened the inevitable. A brutal storm that winter had weakened the aging tree significantly, and even prior to the storm’s devastating impact, many of the withered limbs had ceased to bear fruit. The tree’s demise, then, was perhaps more violent than nature had intended but not much sooner.

And so, no longer could living remnants of New York City’s past, in the form of summer bon chrétien pears, be plucked from centuries-old branches in the East Village.

Stuyvesant’s pear tree is far from the only fruit lost throughout the history of the five boroughs. When Van Aken began to examine records detailing the trees that long ago grew in the city, he found countless varieties of pears, apples, and plums with which he was entirely unfamiliar. He read accounts from explorers Henry Hudson and Giovanni da Verrazzano describing the proliferation of beach plums along the coasts of the waterways now known as New York Harbor. And he wondered how he could do his part to return the city to that same fruit-filled splendor.

"Can you imagine being in New York City and all of the shores are blossoming with these beautiful white flowers in spring?" said Van Aken. "It was a lot different."

A child eating an apple may save its seeds and furtively scatter them across the backyard in hopes that an apple tree would someday sprout for the family to enjoy. For those not well-versed in the world of fruit trees, it would be reasonable to assume that a similar process (with far more finesse than a child's haphazard toss) is used to plant an orchard.

In fact, an apple tree grown from seeds has no guarantee of its fruit retaining the characteristics of its parents, due to the necessity of cross-pollination and the resulting muddling of its genetic makeup. There's very little chance that apples grown in that way will be palatable at all, much less as delicious as the apples from which they came. Instead, growers ensure the continuation of desirable varieties through a process called grafting, in which a cutting is taken from a tree with appealing qualities and joined to an appropriately resilient rootstock.

The degree of precision required for a successful connection makes grafting a difficult technique to master. In the agricultural community where Van Aken grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania, his great-grandfather had become somewhat of a legend due to his command of the method. No one else in the family had been able to replicate the prowess that had allowed Van Aken's great-grandfather to make his living through grafting. It must have been, they surmised even after he passed, a magic touch.

The stories of Van Aken's great-grandfather stuck with him. But after experiencing the burdens of life on a dairy farm all throughout his upbringing, Van Aken resolved to head as far away from agriculture as possible in adulthood.

He became an artist.

Just before Van Aken became reacquainted with his farming background, he was working on a project related to radio hoaxes. A meandrous thought process led him all the way from hoaxes to the transformation of bread into the body of Christ during the Christian rite of the Eucharist, and Van Aken then tied that Catholic concept of transubstantiation to the work that his great-grandfather had done as a grower.

That's how Van Aken discovered that the magic touch required for grafting had indeed stayed with his family. It had just skipped a few generations, ending up in his own two capable hands.

Grafting, for Van Aken, wasn't initially meant to be as much of a return to his familial roots as it was a new way of creating a sculpture.

He envisioned a tree that functioned as an arboreal hoax, masquerading as any ordinary fruit tree during the bulk of the year before erupting into a showstopping spectacle of multicolored blossoms in the spring and then bearing 40 types of stone fruit come summer. In the same way he had hijacked commercial radio frequencies to disrupt listeners, he would force a moment of pause for all who came across the tree and had their expectations subverted by a view that challenged the norm.

Biblical associations drew Van Aken to the number 40. Notably, Noah took shelter in his famed ark to survive a flood spanning 40 days and 40 nights, and Moses spent the same period of time atop Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Jesus, too, fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, successfully resisting temptation from the devil during his prolonged stay in the desert.

Of course, to today’s average fruit eater, trying to come up with a list of 40 types of stone fruit is no easy task. Only a few kinds of peaches, plums, and nectarines can be found at a typical grocery store, as once-incredible levels of genetic diversity have been largely diminished by the prioritization of economic viability. Forget those varieties with a less-than-perfect appearance, as those would be a harder sell, no matter the taste. And even the pretty ones needed a certain threshold of productivity to be an attractive choice for commercial orchards.

Specialization became key — the most fruitful, compact, disease-tolerant, pest-resistant selections were planted in large single-variety chunks.

The prevalence of monoculture farming, however, didn’t hold Van Aken back from bringing his vision to life. By rescuing a 3-acre orchard slated for closure from the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, Van Aken found a plethora of heritage fruit varieties at his disposal and soon set to work.

Now, versions of the “Tree of 40 Fruit” stretch from coast to coast, unleashing their congenial style of trickery on unsuspecting visitors at a children’s museum in San Jose, California and at an art museum meets hotel in Arkansas, among numerous other locations.

As the grafted trees found permanent homes within contemporary art collections, Van Aken’s original intention of creating an eye-catching sculpture that boggles the mind upon further inspection was undoubtedly realized. But each tree's invitation for closer examination is twofold. First, come gawk at its unusual branches. Then, take an even deeper look into the near-disappearances of the little-known fruits that it bears.

From the standpoint of environmental preservation, the impact of Van Aken's work is considerable. Through his “Tree of 40 Fruit” project, Van Aken has not only rescued heritage fruit varieties of generations past from a brush with extinction but has also put the names of these varieties back onto the lips of those who encounter one of his creations. And anyone fortunate enough to actually bite into the results of Van Aken’s careful handiwork should be especially inclined to spread the word.

Van Aken, too, has discovered a personal affinity for “antique” fruits.

“As I was collecting all of these old varieties, I noticed that they tasted so much better, so wildly different, from anything I was getting at a grocery store, or even a farmer’s market,” he said.

“The Open Orchard” is a testament to Van Aken’s fascination, the result of his growing collection of fruit tree samples and the subsequent need to share them more broadly with the public in the interest of preservation. The 102 trees on Governors Island are a showcase of enthusiasm, yes, for the taste of the heirloom varieties but even more so for their stories, with which Van Aken has become intimately familiar. Any peach or apple suspended from the trees’ limbs has a deep connection to the five boroughs, perhaps even predating the 1898 consolidation of New York City that established the five boroughs’ boundaries.

“I started pouring through all of the fruit books I could find through the 1900s, and anytime there was a reference to New York, I would copy it down and build out a description for each one of the fruits,” said Van Aken.

There were the aforementioned beach plums, Stuyvesant’s pear tree.

Beyond beach plums, there were peaches, cranberries, and a myriad of other fruits harvested by the Lenape, the Indigenous people who first inhabited the land now known as New York City. Chili peaches were once a mainstay, thought to be developed in the early 19th century and sought after for their firm, dry flesh and tendency to ripen late in the season (now, “chili peach” is far more likely uttered in reference to a flavor of hot sauce). Newtown Pippin apples, potentially dating back as far as the late 17th century, started as a chance seedling in Queens before becoming a colonial-era favorite praised by the likes of Thomas Jefferson (they're still around, notably used to make Martinelli's sparkling cider).

Queens is a frequent mention in discussing the timeline of fruit production and horticulture throughout New York City. There, too, lived the Huguenots, French Protestants who fled to Flushing to escape religious persecution and brought with them a vast knowledge of fruit cultivation, including a capable understanding of grafting. With the aid of the Huguenots' expertise, Robert Prince dedicated 8 acres to a remarkable assortment of fruit trees, which eventually developed into what’s said to be America’s first large-scale commercial nursery, also praised by — and patronized by — Jefferson.

Out of this vast array of rediscovered fruits, does Van Aken have a favorite? He hesitated when asked but settled on the Washington Gage plum. The choice, of course, was based in the plum’s history, a disputed past with one enchanting account describing how a strike of lightning coaxed the fresh-eating variety to grow from the remaining roots of an otherwise dead tree. (“That’s a pretty good story,” Van Aken said.)

As implied by its name, "The Open Orchard" is entirely open to the public. Save for the cost of a ferry ticket to Governors Island (free on weekends before noon), there are no fees for entrance.

The fruit, as well, is entirely free for the taking, limited only by the season and the presently small yield of the still-young trees that will one day produce a more bountiful supply. According to Van Aken, there will be a steady stream of fruit for more than half of the year, starting with cherries that ripen right away in June and concluding with winter apples that may not fully mature until December. He wants to give visitors the opportunity to try it all, in what's both a further push for preservation and an acknowledgment of the Lenape belief that no one person could claim ownership of a tree, just the fruit that they harvested.

Governors Island is a fitting location for an orchard that doubles as a collaborative art installation. A large portion of the island situated in New York Harbor is reserved for parkland and various purposes that benefit the public in some way following the 2003 sale of the former military installation from the federal government to the City and State of New York. And with much of its acreage sitting unused ever since the Coast Guard closed the base and relocated all personnel in the late '90s, Governors Island was perhaps the one place in a city not known for its available space that could realistically play host to Van Aken's vision.

The view from Governors Island came as a bonus.

" If I look to the north, I see southern Manhattan. If I look to the west, there’s Ellis Island. And to the southwest, it’s the Statue of Liberty," said Van Aken. "It’s kind of extraordinary."

It's certainly a stunning backdrop for an orchard; it's also a conspicuous reminder of how deeply the trees' roots are embedded in New York City's past. Any orchard will invite a more potent connection to the food that we consume than will a trip to the grocery store with a bag of Gala apples mindlessly thrown in the cart, but Van Aken's installation asks for both that same regard for the path that the fruit took from the tree to the consumer and a reflection on the determined journey it made from its very beginnings centuries ago into the present day.

To amplify that premise, as well as to further restore New York City to its blossom-cloaked brilliance of yore, Van Aken has partnered with the gardening initiative NYC Parks GreenThumb to distribute 100 additional trees to community gardens around the city, each one placed with the knowledge in mind of the exact neighborhoods in which the specific fruits once prospered.

Caring for so many trees could easily become a burden to just a single person, but presenting the trees as a collaborative effort helps significantly to lessen Van Aken's load. With the promise of free fruit, it's been easy to find community members willing to lend a hand. The hope, then, is that they’ll receive from the tree a changed perspective to accompany the complimentary nectarines.

"When you talk about a particular fruit variety in a particular neighborhood, people start to really look at the urban environment that they live in differently. You can start to rethink the whole of the urban landscape and how we’re living in it," Van Aken said.

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