New public orchard on Governors Island grows fruit not found in NYC for centuries

April 11, 2022

Rendering of The Open Orchard project site on Governors Island in full bloom; courtesy of Sam Van Aken

An orchard with trees containing fruit varieties native to the New York City region will open to the public this month on Governors Island. Created by artist Sam Van Aken, the artwork, The Open Orchardconsists of 102 trees bearing fruits grown in the state within the past 400 years but which have gone extinct due to climate change and industrialization. The orchard will serve as a gene bank for rare fruit species that can no longer be found naturally here, allowing New Yorkers to taste fruit that has not existed for hundreds of years, while also preserving them for future generations. The Open Orchard will officially open on Arbor Day, April 29, the Trust for Governors Island announced on Monday.

The Open Orchard was inspired by an earlier project of Van Aken’s, Tree of 40 Fruit, which involved the use of a specific grafting process that allowed for 40 single trees to grow up to 40 unique varieties of fruit. Each tree in the public orchard will be grafted with multiple varieties of peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, cherries, and apples that “originated or were historically grown in the New York City region,” according to the artist.

About 100 additional trees grown on the island since 2018 will be donated and planted in community gardens across the city in partnership with NYC Parks GreenThumb, the country’s largest community gardening program. Upon the orchard’s opening, the Trust and the city will host public programs, including workshops, talks, performances, fruit tastings, harvest events, and cooking lessons.

“Sam Van Aken’s vital work transforms preconceived notions about what public art can be, preserves the ecological history of our region, and allows New Yorkers from all five boroughs to enjoy a beautiful public orchard in the heart of New York harbor,” Clare Newman, president and CEO of the Trust for Governors Island, said.

“The Island is an ideal location to explore issues of environmental preservation and the felt impacts of climate change through art and public engagement. We cannot wait to welcome Island visitors to experience this ambitious work in person.”

Sam Van Aken planting trees in The Open Orchard on Governors Island at the groundbreaking ceremony, October 2021. Photo credit: Sari Goodfriend for The Trust for Governors Island

According to a press release, the new project will help Van Aken fulfill his lifelong dream of creating an orchard within New York City that contains hundreds of unique fruit species. As fruit trees cannot be preserved in seed banks, they must be grown as living trees and maintained.

According to Van Aken, the most difficult aspect of the project was obtaining living samples of each fruit species. As Van Aken told the New Yorker, he had to find specialty fruit dealers scattered across the country, including an apple dealer in Maine, and a stone-fruit dealer in Oregon. He even had to get special phytosanitary permits for each state he purchased samples in.

The Open Orchard on Governors Island, and the expansive orchard taking place across the entire city in community gardens in all five boroughs, wouldn’t have been possible without the time, energy, and generosity of so many invested in art, biodiversity and revisiting this forgotten history of New York,” Van Aken said.

“After eight years in development and five years of the project growing at Governors Island, I remain indebted to all those involved and humbled to find a place and community with the shared vision of rethinking not just agriculture but the culture that surrounds it.”

The Open Orchard is the first commissioned artwork announced by the Trust for Governors Island’s recently expanded cultural program, Governors Island Arts. In the coming months, new art commissions and public programs will be announced, as well as a new marketing campaign and advisory committee designed to support Governors Island Arts.


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