Beside a blue fence in the back of the East Fourth Street Community Garden in Kensington, a skinny, leafless little tree pokes optimistically up from the Brooklyn soil.
At this point, the sapling looks like not much more than a stick, though a tiny swollen bud at its very top foretells its plans and potential. But to gardener Eric Boucourt, it’s a revolution — a return to New York City of something once precious — and since lost.
The tree is a fall pippin, one of the country’s oldest varieties of apple that’s thought to date back to the 1700s. And it’s one of 40 trees recently planted around New York City as part of a project called the Open Orchard. It aims to restore long-gone fruit trees to 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 mind of Sam Van Aken, a botanist and artist who serves as the 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 it will cover an acre and a half of Governors Island with 250 varieties of fruit — all of them either indigenous to, originated in, or historically grown in New York City.
The effort also aims to plant about 100 heirloom trees in gardens around the city by next spring. The distribution to community gardens is in partnership with Green Thumb, the city’s urban gardening program. Most of these historic fruits were once plentiful on the city’s grassy knolls and hills. But they’ve since been mostly lost to climate change and mass agriculture.
The Open Orchard on Governors Island opens to the public on April 29th. Van Aken said visitors will be able to stop by and see, and soon even taste, the fruits that other New Yorkers might have enjoyed centuries ago.
But some agriculture experts said the organizers need to make sure these reintroduced trees don’t themselves become invasive, raising familiar questions about conservation and what it truly means to be a native species.
Grafting botanical history
Open Orchard is a sequel for Van Aken. Starting in 2008, he began creating trees that can carry multiple types of fruit through a process called grafting. A tactic used by farmers as far back as ancient China and Mesopotamia, grafting takes the top or a branch from one tree and attaches it to the bottom of another.
Van Aken used the technique to create his Tree of Forty Fruit, wherein he grafted 40 different varieties of stone fruit tree onto a single plant, including peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, cherries and almonds.
That endeavor, and subsequent ones since then, left him with a rather massive collection of antique and heirloom fruit trees. Van Aken said that gave him a lot of anxiety.
“I amassed what I was told was one of the largest collections of stone fruit in the Eastern United States, which I thought was really terrifying,” he laughed. “Like that's crazy, you know, how could, how could I be the person that has such a large collection?”
He said tasting the fruit furthered his growing understanding of how different these plants were from what is currently commercially sold.
“I started doing research on them and really started to question why aren't these more readily available,” he recalled. “Then I came up with the idea of, well, I just need to make them available.”
But the mission wasn’t easy at first. Van Aken spent years doing the research, starting with a series of books published by the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station as far back as 1905. He then used maps and other historic records to try to pinpoint, as exactly as possible, which varieties were grown where.
Then there was the task of finding the remaining trees of the rare varieties to use some of their branches as grafts. Van Aken said he combed through the orchards of local growers, the rare and antique fruit collections at universities, and worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to track down the heirloom species. He described the process of finding them all as “an enormous hunt.”
To decide which trees should go where for Open Orchard, Van Aken looked through each area’s botanical history to find what grew there. Such was the case for a peach variety called George IV, which he recently sent to be planted in a community garden on the southern tip of Manhattan.
Somebody walks by and tastes it, you know, and it's an amazing peach.
“So the story of this peach,” he recounted, “is that somebody was eating a peach on Broad Street right by the Governors Island ferry. And they threw the peach pit between two buildings.”
As the lore continues, the peach takes to the soil and becomes a tree.
“Somebody walks by and tastes it, you know, and it's an amazing peach.” He laughed. “All of a sudden, it’s grown around the world throughout the 19th century.”
Van Aken had found that the George IV peaches were grown during this time by a “Mr. Will” somewhere in what is now Manhattan’s Financial District. By looking at old maps, Van Aken was able to pinpoint that the precise orchard was on Broad Street.
Now, that tree is growing once again in lower Manhattan, at the Children’s Magical Garden in the East Village.
Are grafted trees really restoring the past?
Across the East River on Governors Island, another 102 small trees stand in white plastic sleeves, tiny buds just beginning to unfold on them. Helicopters drone overhead, and killdeer camouflage in the grass. Open Orchard organizers planted these trees last fall from a nursery elsewhere on the island. Van Aken has grafted two or three different varieties onto each rootstock.
Grafting itself has roots in New York City — in Flushing, Queens, to be exact. Van Aken said the first grafts in the U.S. were probably done there. He said the practice reached America’s shores back in the early 1700s, when the French monarchy revoked the Edict of Nantes, which led to an exodus of French Huguenots.
“They sent all of these very trained, skilled agricultural workers away from 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 along with them, they brought grafting.”
“During the Revolutionary War, both the British and the Americans protected the Prince nursery,” he explained. “They viewed it as such an asset that they didn't want to destroy, so they actually posted sentries by it.”
Van Aken’s enthusiasm for the backstory is evident in the current work, and it is shared by his co-organizers. Meredith Johnson, the vice president for arts and culture and head curator at the Trust for Governors Island, called it a “once in a lifetime project that could only exist in the magical landscape that is Governors Island.”
She added that it would give visitors “the rare opportunity to physically time travel, by seeing, touching, and tasting history while also reflecting on our collective future.” Johnson and Shane Brennan, Governors Island’s former director of public programs, co-curated the installation.
A lot of introduced horticulture species do become invasive, and so we have to be careful about that.
Dr. Myla Aronson, an urban ecologist and a professor at Rutgers University, said Open Orchard could be a positive thing. She also urged caution over unintended consequences for local ecosystems.
“It increases biodiversity overall and resistance to diseases, to introduce [as many] cultivars as possible,” Aronson said. But she noted that — with the exception of persimmons, pawpaws, and crabapples — most fruit trees were not native to these shores. These species were actually introduced by colonization. This history gives her some pause over Open Orchard.
“A lot of introduced horticulture species do become invasive, and so we have to be careful about that,” Aronson said.
For now, back on the island, the trees are barely starting to bloom, let alone making fruit. Van Aken expects that to happen soon. He said apples and pears both take longer to fruit, so may not produce this year. But he expects other trees might.
“As long as we don't get a late frost,” he said, “we'll get peaches and cherries, and there'll be some plum varieties.”