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The Tree of Forty Fruit by Sam Van Aken

The Tree of Forty Fruit by Sam Van Aken

If you have been keeping your eyes on the internet lately you have probably seen the shimmering tapestry of pink, purple, red, and white blossoms which is the “tree of forty fruits”. This is a stone-fruit tree which has been agonizingly grafted together out of numerous branches from heritage peach, apricot, plum, apple, quince, cherry and other rose-family fruit trees into a frilly pink Frankenstein of a fruit tree. The root stock is a hardy plum tree to which the other stocks are added one by one. The effect is simultaneously garish and beautiful—particularly in blossom season (though it must be impressive to see the tree in early fall when it is laden with heterogenous fruits).


The tree of forty fruits seems like it might have been designed by a mad scientist, a huge biotech corporation, or a high-minded super-villain (like Poison Ivy or someone), but it was actually the creation of an art professor, Sam Van Aken. Van Aken gre up in rural Pennsylvania and he wanted to save the vanishing heirloom fruits of his youth. In an article about his project in Epicurious, Van Aken explained why he is working to safeguard these classic fruits, “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,” To him the number forty has a talismanic quality which represents superabundance. He has already created 16 of the intricately grafted trees and he dreams of spreading them around the country and perhaps the globe.


The tree of forty fruits is a living sculpture—a bizarre amalgam of trees, agriculture, and diligent manual artistry. It isn’t just a splicing together of different tree species, it is a hybridization of ancient fundamental human pursuits. If you told the nurserymen and sculptors of Babylon that we would live in a world with such a tree, they would applaud. So should we!

The Picture Scroll of “Clustering Chinese Plum Flowers”by Chen Lu

Clustering Chinese Plum Flowers (Chen Lu, Early Ming, Ink on Handscroll)

The plum blossom is a favorite motif in Chinese painting.  Since the tree blooms at the end of winter it has long been a symbol of winter and the endurance of life.  Similarly, because ancient gnarled plum trees could bear elegant new blossoms, the plum evoked thoughts of long life.  Plums were also indirectly connected to Lao Tzu who was allegedly born under a plum tree.  For  more than 3000 years plums have been a favorite food in China and a favorite food for thought for Chinese artists and poets.

Plum Blossoms, hanging scroll, ink on paper

Plum Blossoms (Chen Lu, Ming Dynasty, ink on paper scroll)

These paintings are all paintings of plum blossoms by Ming dynasty master Chen Lu.  He was born in the early Ming dynasty in Huiji (which is today Shaoxing in Zhejiang province) and was one of the all-time greatest painters of bamboo, pine, orchids, and especially plum blossoms, but no one knows the exact dates of his birth and death.  The spare calligraphic lines of these monumental scrolls are interspersed with sections of wild chaos and with internal empty spaces.  The effect is not dissimilar from abstract expressionism—the plum boughs become an abstract internal voyage which the viewer embarks on through form & lack of form; from darkness to light and back.  This internal voyage element of his work was highlighted by the fact that the long horizontal work is a handscroll—the viewer is meant to spool through it and thus appreciate the modality of discovery and change (if you click on the horizontal scroll at the top of this post you will get some of this effect, although the image is smaller than one might hope).  Additionally plum blossoms opened in winter and so they are frequently interspersed with white snow and ice—an even more trenchant juxtaposition of life and non-life.

Plum Blossom and the moon (72.8*155.7 cm, by Chen Lu, Ming Dynasty)

Plum Blossom and the Moon (Chen Lu, Ming Dynasty, Ink on Scroll)


Italian plums

Italian plums

Some colors are more subtle than others.  In fact some colors are so subtle that they are wholly ancillary to others.  Fine artists are attuned to all manner of delicate films, coatings, glazes, and washes which are added to a deeper color in order to produce a sense of depth or the illusion of texture. Subtle color-words—those which describe a texture, a mood, or a translucent quality are deeply appreciated.  Today’s color describes a secondary color which was known deep into classical antiquity and earlier.  The word glaucous derives from the Latin “glaucus” which in turn derives from the Greek “glaukos” (all of which mean the same thing)–a waxy, shiny gray/green/blue neutral color such as the blush found on fresh grapes.  If you have ever eaten fresh grapes or plums you will be familiar with this color as the delicate coating on purple plums and grapes (and if you have not eaten fresh grapes and plums, who are you? Live better!).



Certain plants also have a glaucous coatings—such as cacti and other succulents.  Ornithologists, ever in a bind to come up with Latin and Greek words to describe the numerous species of bird have also taken to the word.  Birds which have waxy neutral gray-blue feathers often have “glaucus” in their binomial names (just as yellowish birds are often known as fulvous).  The glaucous-winged gull (Larus glaucescens) of the Pacific Northwest is a fine example.  The birds’ grey wings look as though they were glazed on by a gifted confectioner.

Glaucous Winged Gull (gull (Larus glaucescens)

Glaucous Winged Gull (gull (Larus glaucescens)

I like the word because I like plums, cacti, and birds (obviously in different ways) but I also appreciate the concept of a pale color which is always delicately brushed across something else.  With a poke of the finger or a good washing in the kitchen sink, the color glaucous would vanish.

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Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

June 2023