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Trustees bring Tree of 40 Fruit to Roanoke


Photo Courtesy of Artist Rendering

Article Written by David Hall


A new tree (given as a gift for the 175th anniversary by the board of trustees) that will one day grow to contain dozens of fruit has been reserved its place outside of Olin Hall, following a small reception in March.

A work of art and conservation, artist Sam Van Aken began planting and grafting these trees as a way to save the shrinking varieties of stone fruit threatened by large monoculture farming techniques.

The beauty of these trees has caught the attention of many, including reporters from NPR, CBS, and trustee Joanne Cassullo, who is responsible for bringing Van Aken’s art to Roanoke.

“I heard about Sam Van Aken’s ‘Tree of 40 Fruit’ in a board meeting for a NYC-based public arts organization. From the minute I saw the image of the Tree, I knew we needed to have one on campus. In fact, I felt it was our destiny,” said Cassullo.

To make the piece unique to the college, Van Aken will pull unique varieties of fruit from around the state.

“Each ‘Tree of 40 Fruit is different as they are all made specific to the site where they are located.” said Van Aken. “Leading up to the project I research the varieties historically grown in the area and identify local orchards where I can collect material to graft to the tree. For Roanoke I’m excited to learn about a new region of the country and [have] the opportunity to work with historical orchards in Virginia, including those at Monticello.”

In addition to being a professional artist, Van Aken is an associate professor of studio at Syracuse University whose pieces have been featured across the country. Cassullo can barely contain her excitement when describing the tree and what it means to both her and the college.

“For me, the ‘Tree of 40 Fruit’ visually symbolizes what it is like to live on a private, residential, liberal arts campus like Roanoke College.” said Cassullo. “Students come from all over the country, if not the the world, and live together for 4 years — and as a whole, blossom into one gorgeous student body by the time they graduate. It is almost a living portrait of our students.”

By the time the tree matures, in about 7-8 years, it will display a multitude of colors corresponding to the different fruit. This is accomplished through a process known as grafting, during which bits of one fruit tree are carefully cut and spliced onto another tree, so that the receiving tree can retain multiple types of fruits. Grafting has been around for millennia and is a very common practice, even taken up by President Maxey – another reason to bring the piece to campus according to Cassullo.

“One of the reasons Roanoke College is so special is because of President Maxey’s inspired leadership, and this tree will remind all of us of him when we see it,” Cassullo added.