Open Orchard art project aims to restore New York’s long-lost fruit trees

Next to a blue picket fence at the back of the East Fourth Street Community Garden in Kensington, a small, skinny, leafless tree rises optimistically from the ground in Brooklyn.

At this point, the sapling only looks like a stick, though a small, swollen bud at its top foretells its plans and potential. But for gardener Eric Boucourt, it’s a revolution — a return to New York of something once treasured — and since lost.

The tree is a fall pippin, one of the nation’s oldest apple varieties believed to date back to the 1700s. And it’s one of 40 trees recently planted around New York as part of a project called Open Orchard. It aims to restore long-extinct fruit trees in the region.

“It’s a very special tree,” Boucourt said lovingly, showing pages of research he’d studied on how best to help the little fall pippin grow.

Open Orchard comes from the spirit of Sam Van Aken, a botanist and artist who is associate director of the School of Art at Syracuse University. The project was commissioned by the Trust for Governors Island through Governors Island Arts. Van Aken said he will cover an acre and a half of Governors Island with 250 varieties of fruit – all native, native to or historically grown in New York.

The effort also aims to plant around 100 heritage trees in city gardens by next spring. Distribution to community gardens is done in partnership with Green thumb, the city’s urban gardening program. Most of these historic fruits were once abundant on the grassy hills and hills of the city. But they have since been mostly lost to climate change and mass farming.

The Open Orchard on Governors Island opens to the public on April 29. Van Aken said visitors will be able to stop and see, and soon even taste, the fruit that other New Yorkers might have enjoyed centuries ago.

But some agriculture experts said organizers need to make sure these reintroduced trees don’t become invasive themselves, raising familiar questions about conservation and what it really means to be a native species.

Botanical history grafting

Open Orchard is a sequel to Van Aken. Starting in 2008, he began creating trees that could bear multiple types of fruit through a process called grafting. A tactic used by farmers from Ancient China and Mesopotamiagrafting takes the top or branch of one tree and attaches it to the bottom of another.

Van Aken used the technique to create his Tree with forty fruitswhere he grafted 40 different varieties of stone fruit trees onto a single plant, including peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, cherries and almonds.

This venture, and subsequent ones since then, left him with a fairly massive collection of old and heirloom fruit trees. Van Aken said it gave him a lot of anxiety.

“I amassed what I was told was one of the largest stone fruit collections in the Eastern United States, which I found truly terrifying,” he said. laughing. “How crazy, you know, how could I, how could I be the person with such a big collection?”

He said tasting the fruit provided insight into how different these plants are from what is currently sold commercially.

“I started researching them and really started wondering why they weren’t more readily available,” he recalls. “Then I had the idea of, well, I just need to make them available.”

But the mission was not easy at first. Van Aken spent years researching, beginning with a series of books published by the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station as early as 1905. He then used maps and other historical records to try to determine, as accurately as possible, what varieties were grown and where.

Then there was the task of finding the remaining trees of the rare varieties to use some of their branches as scions. Van Aken said he combed through local growers’ orchards, universities’ rare and antique fruit collections, and worked with the US Department of Agriculture to track down heritage species. He described the process of finding them all as “one huge hunt”.

To decide which trees should go where for Open Orchard, Van Aken scoured the botanical history of each region to find what grew there. This was the case for a variety of peach called George IVwhich he recently sent to plant in a community garden on the southern tip of Manhattan.

“So the story of this peach,” he recounted, “is that someone was eating a peach on Broad Street, right by the Governors Island ferry. And they threw the peach pit between two buildings.

As the tradition continues, the peach takes to the ground and becomes a tree.

“Somebody come by and taste it, you know, and it’s amazing fishing.” He’s laughing. “All of a sudden it expanded around the world throughout the 19th century.”

Van Aken had discovered that George IV peaches were grown at that time by a “Mr. Will” somewhere in what is now Manhattan’s financial district. Looking at old maps, Van Aken was able to determine that the orchard accurate was on Broad Street.

Now that tree is growing again in lower Manhattan, at the Children’s Magical Garden in the East Village.

Do grafted trees really restore the past?

Across the East River on Governors Island, another 102 small trees stand in white plastic sleeves, tiny buds just beginning to unfurl on them. Drone helicopters overhead and kites camouflaged in the grass. Open Orchard organizers planted these trees last fall from a nursery elsewhere on the island. Van Aken grafted two or three different varieties onto each rootstock.

The transplant itself has its roots in New York — in Flushing, Queens, to be exact. Van Aken said the first transplants in the United States were probably performed there. He said the practice reached American shores in the early 1700s, when the French monarchy revoked the Edict of Nanteswhich led to an exodus of French Huguenots.

“They sent all these very skilled and highly skilled farm workers out of France. And a lot of them settled in Queens, which at the time was run by Quakers,” Van Aken said. “There was a lot more religious acceptance. They let the Huguenots settle in Flushing, and with them they brought graft.

He related that around 1730, one of these arrivals – the Princely family – founded a nursery, which they continued to lead for another 120 years. Van Aken said it has become a valuable business.

“During the Revolutionary War, the British and Americans protected the Prince Nursery,” he explained. “They considered it such an asset that they didn’t want to destroy, so they actually posted sentries next to it.”

Van Aken’s enthusiasm for the backstory is evident in the current work, and it is shared by his co-organizers. Meredith Johnson, vice president of arts and culture and chief curator of the Trust for Governors Island, called it “a once-in-a-lifetime project that can only exist in the magical landscape that is Governors Island.”

She added that it would give visitors “the rare opportunity to physically travel through time, seeing, touching and tasting history while pondering our collective future”. Johnson and Shane Brennan, former Director of Public Programs for Governors Island, co-hosted the installation.

Dr. Myla Aronson, an urban ecologist and professor at Rutgers University, said Open Orchard could be a positive thing. She also urged caution about unintended consequences for local ecosystems.

“It increases overall biodiversity and disease resistance, to introduce [as many] cultivars as possible,” Aronson said. But she noted that with the exception of persimmons, papayas and crabapples, most of the fruit trees were not native to these shores. These species were in fact introduced by colonization. This story gives him pause on Open Orchard.

“A lot of introduced horticultural species become invasive, so we have to be careful about that,” Aronson said.

For now, back on the island, the trees are just beginning to flower, let alone produce fruit. Van Aken expects that to happen soon. He said apples and pears take longer to fruit and therefore may not produce this year. But he expects other trees to do so.

“As long as we don’t have late frost,” he said, “we will have peaches and cherries, and there will be varieties of plums.”

Dora W. Clawson