Governors Island's New Orchard Is a Treasure Trove of Rare Fruits

"The Open Orchard," a new artwork that was just unveiled in Governors Island, features over 100 fruit trees.

Photo by Timothy Schenck, courtesy of The Trust for Governors Island
Photo by Timothy Schenck, courtesy of The Trust for Governors Island

Soon, New Yorkers will be able to taste long-lost fruit on Governors Island.

"The Open Orchard" is a new project by artist and Syracuse University sculpture professor Sam Van Anken commissioned by the Trust for Governors Island. It was inaugurated last Friday, and takes the form of a public orchard.

The 102 trees of "The Open Orchard," however, aren't your standard fruit-bearing plants. In fact, the orchard will be home to many tree varieties that have inhabited New York City's soil in the past 400 years, but that have mostly disappeared because of both climate change and industrialization of agriculture.

Among the many factors that influence whether or not a fruit variety needs to be cultivated or not are its durability during shipping, how easy it is to grow it, and its visual appeal, as Curbed points out. The Golden Russet, for example, used to be one of the most common apples in New York, but its popularity decreased over time because of its rougher skin.

Artist Van Aken disagrees with the way these commercial decisions affect heirloom fruits. "To me, they're the best-tasting apples, and they have the best texture," he told Curbed. "People need to taste these fruits because they're so wildly different from anything we're getting at grocery stores and, to some extent, even at farmers' markets, too."

To bring his project to life, Van Aken used a grafting technique, combining multiple fruit varieties into a single tree. This way, different varieties grow next to one another, resulting in an impressionistic-looking tree that features white, crimson, and pink flowers.

These trees serve a huge environmental purpose, too. Simply by existing, they preserve dozens of fruit varieties that are now considered rare—like certain types of almonds, apples, apricots, and peaches, among others—and they do so within a safe environment from which they can be monitored and cared for. In the face of changing climate, 'The Open Orchard' is an innovative project that can shed some light on future techniques to maintain and preserve biodiversity. An extra 100 more trees, which have been nursed in the parked, will be transplanted to community gardens across the five boroughs.

"'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," artist Sam Van Aken said in an official statement. "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' marks the first commissioned artwork under the Trust for Governors Island's cultural program, dubbed Governors Island Arts. In a combined effort with the City of New York, the Trust will announce new projects and art commissions in the next several months, and will launch a new campaign as well as an advisory committee to support the new program.

"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 in a statement. "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."

Visitors can now access Governors Island and visit 'The Open Orchard', which will welcome guests with a workshop series, talks, and performances, as well as fruit tastings and culinary lessons, and more to be announced in the next months.

Governor Island is open daily to the public from 7 am–6pm, and can be reached by ferry. For more information, you can visit the Governors Island website.

Check out some beautiful photos of the orchard below:

Photo by Timothy Schenck, courtesy of The Trust for Governors Island
Photo by Timothy Schenck, courtesy of The Trust for Governors Island
Photo by Timothy Schenck, courtesy of The Trust for Governors Island
Photo by Timothy Schenck, courtesy of The Trust for Governors Island

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Serena Tara is a Staff Writer on the News team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.