Should Public Trees Bear Fruit?

San Francisco's "Guerilla Grafters" are transforming the city's trees into bootleg fruit producers, much to the chagrin of officials.

There’s a block in San Francisco that will soon be blossoming with cherries, plums and pears, but Tara Hui will not say where. That’s because she’s worried that backlash from city officials or unsympathetic citizens will halt the progress she and her fellow Guerrilla Grafters have made splicing fruit-bearing branches on to city trees.

Grafting trees is as simple as cutting a branch from one kind of tree and sticking it into a notch in another, securing it with sturdy tape and hoping that the new branch thrives. It’s as old as the Bible and widely used today in industrial agriculture.

Hui hopes the method will help bring food to under-served parts of the city like her neighborhood, Visitacion Valley, which she says is basically a food desert.

"There’s a lot of discussion about what kind of policy we need to get businesses to come to this neighborhood to sell fresh produce or even organic," she says. Over the years she’s advocated for bringing fruit trees into the city's urban forestry mix. "If all goes well it might even spawn some kind of cottage industry like canning or jamming," she says.

But first things first.

Her campaign with city agencies hadn’t drawn any takers, "so finally out of frustration I thought why not just do it, and do it responsibly, and that could be a case to convince them,” she says. About a year ago, the Guerrilla Grafters were born as a horizontally organized band of fellow agro-activists who wanted to help sew an urban orchard.

Hui sees maintaining data as a key element of the project. “It’s difficult to counter an argument without any data to disprove it,” she says. The grafters are working on a mapping application with data on tree type and location in hopes that the citizen science will bolster their project and any future negotiating they may need to do.

They have good reason to worry on that score. The city's public works director, Mohammed Nuru, recently told the San Francisco Examiner that trees in the right of way are "not for grafting" and that the city "considers such vandalism a serious offense. There would be fines for damage to city property."

Harvesting and distributing fruit and keeping away vermin go beyond what urban forestry workers ought to manage on top of their other work and budget constraints, argues Nina Bassuk, who heads the Urban Horticulture Institute at Cornell University. While urban forests are hugely beneficial to cities, "food production is not and should not be within the scope of service that municipal foresters are responsible for," she says.

Those sorts of reactions have thus far not deterred the Guerrilla Grafters. Ian Pollock, a media arts professor at several Bay Area colleges, says he joined up because of his interest in the artistic and philosophical ramifications of guerrilla grafting. He sees the process of splicing in fruit trees as an act that changes the nature of a public space, like graffiti.

"Grafting and graffiti have the same roots, if not from a linguistic sense certainly from a poetic one,” he says. “It’s all about the way space is inscribed from writing or taking over a public service." He says it’s not so much about people invading other people’s turf, but having a conversation “about sharing and beauty and food.”

Hui points out that the group is careful to only splice into locations where a volunteer has offered to monitor and maintain the tree, “so it really comes to us rather than us going out looking for it,” she says. Volunteers are watching in neighborhoods from the Sunnydale housing projects to the tony Hayes Valley, vigilant against a pest infestation that could spoil the pilot program.

In a way, Hui argues, the trees are asking for it. Many of the existing, decorative plants that the city has installed are non-fruiting fruit trees like the purple-leaf plum.

“It’s really returning the tree back to its natural intent anyway,” she says.

About the Author

  • Amy Biegelsen is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.