Plant Talk

Re-Orcharding New York: The Work of Artist Sam Van Aken

Posted in Inside our Collections on April 13, 2023, by Michaela Wright

In the early 1800s, someone walking along the bustling streets of lower Manhattan eating a peach casually discarded the unwanted pit into Mr. Gill’s yard on Broad Street—today’s financial district. From the pit, a seedling emerged and grew up in the shadow of the historic Trinity Church. When discovered in 1821, the little tree produced a new variety of peach with exceptionally juicy and melting white flesh. Named the George IV peach, the fruit was shared through seeds and cuttings and soon became a favorite across the U.S. and Europe, only falling out of favor in the 1890s because it was too fragile to ship.

Newly planted trees held up by wooden poles in a lawn of green grass with the New York City skyline behind it.

Sam Van Aken’s The Open Orchard installed on Governors Island

In New York City’s early days, the region was covered in small orchards, each growing dozens of different varieties of fruit like the George IV peach—from apples, apricots, and cherries to plums, peaches, and nectarines. Each variety had a name and a story: the Yellow Spanish cherry was said to be ancient, mentioned by Roman author Pliny the Elder (23/24–79 CE) in his encyclopedic Natural History (77 CE). The Washington Gage plum supposedly originated when an old plum tree growing in a Mrs. Bolmar’s backyard, just off Manhattan’s Bowery St., was struck by lightning and began producing new fruit. As industrial agricultural methods expanded in the 20th century, these heritage varieties were all but wiped out.

In his newest work on Governors Island, contemporary artist Sam Van Aken has set out to reverse this loss. Van Aken’s works move beyond traditional modes of art making, intervening in natural and public realms to generate new perspectives on botany, agriculture, and technology. Using grafting as a sculptural technique, Van Aken combines orchard varieties of different fruits together onto single, hybrid trees. The Open Orchard’s installation of hybrid trees are banks of biodiversity, but also sculptures that embody a living vision of the city’s past. Van Aken’s hybrid trees are also being shared with community gardens across the city’s five boroughs, all part of the project to re-orchard New York.

Dried specimen under glass with descriptive signs.

Sam Van Aken’s The Open Orchard specimens displayed at NYBG

Alongside his hybrid trees, Van Aken has begun creating botanical specimens of the heritage varieties he uses in his hybrid trees. Van Aken’s specimens preserve scientific record of historic fruit varieties as a part of the art making process, generating both new artistic works and new scientific research.

In celebration of Earth Day, NYBG has mounted a small display of contemporary artist Sam Van Aken’s botanical specimens, set alongside specimens from the Steere Herbarium highlighting fruits from the Garden’s own collections. Earth Day celebrations will culminate with a weekend celebration on April 22, when Van Aken will join us for a lecture on Earth Day (April 22) and host an Apple Grafting Master Class.

In the slideshow, explore a few of the stories behind the Steere Herbarium specimens included in the show, and visit the Ross Hall gallery to see Van Aken’s work.

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