1925 Axel N. Erlandson

Axel Elandson

Axel N ErlandsonLife long passions will grow from unexpected realisations. For bean farmer Axel Erlandson, it was noticing how two sycamore trees naturally grew together at his farm in Hilmar, in the San Joaquin Valley. A curious man and a jack of all trades, Axel planted four trees in a square and trained their tops together.four legged gaintIn 1945 Erlandson’s wife and daughter Wilma visited Santa Cruz for a few days. Upon returning they talked about an attraction they had visited while in Santa Cruz called the mystery spot. And that maybe Axel should move his trees to Scotts Valley. This idea grew to be appealing to Axel and within the same year he would buy a ¾-acre plot of land. Laboriously, over the next few months, he prepared and transported his trees to their new home.

The park opened in 1947 with a sign, “See World’s Strangest Trees Here.” On his daughter’s suggestion, the sign was changed to the Tree Circus. A 1957 article in Life magazine made the trees world famous, fulsomely praising “tree culture which beats anything in the gardens of Versailles.”

The Tree Circus was written about in Ripley’s believe it or not. Ripley featured these trees on 12 different occasions. Axel received correspondence from all over the world, to which he meticulously responded. He almost never left the property, fearing visitors would find it closed.

In all, Erlandson coaxed more than 70 trees into the shapes of ladders, valentines, honeycombs, spirals, zig zags, bird cages, phone booths and more. They went by names like “Hourglass Tree,” “Needle and Thread” and “Lightning Bolt.”

When asked how he did it, he sometimes replied:- “Oh, I talk to them.” We know of course, that it took alot more than talking to produce the results he achieved.* [1]They involved wire, tape, steel and guides, and his trees took years to assume their final shapes. grown arch way

In later life, he grew to regret never having taken on an apprentice, This meant that as he grew older and frailer he was unable to attend and care for his trees.

After many years of trying to sell his trees he managed to sell the trees in 1963. It was only a year later that he would die at the age of 79.

basket treeDuring the years after he sold the property it had various new owners or operators. However, it didn’t prove to be very successful venture for any of them. One time Disney was interested in purchasing some of the trees but the owner at that point asked such ridiculous, high price that even Disney lost interest. * [2]

The trees had been slowly dying of neglect. In 1977 the property was purchased for commercial development by Robert Hogan and the trees were scheduled to be bulldozed. Mark Primack, a young architect, began documenting the trees and their story and received an art grant to draw and record them as they were. Joseph Cahill, a landscape designer, paid Hogan $12,000 for the trees and was given two and a half years to move them. Cahill cleaned up the site, and “Suddenly the good citizens of Santa Cruz and Scotts Valley were upset.” A committee called the Friends of Scotts Valley Tree Circus was formed by Joe Cucchiara to keep the old trees put. At times Primack and his friends risked arrest for trespassing in order to water and feed the trees. Primack was quoted as saying “I know of no other single person who has taken ornamental grafting to such an extreme, it is not just an oddity. It demonstrates an intriguing option for improving our environment by creating an absolutely unique space of living sculpture.” Efforts to have the trees declared historical or a cultural resource failed and Cahill’s window for moving the trees closed. Hogan’s plan for development did not materialize.* [3]

Finally, in 1984, Micael Bonfante come forward to buy the trees for an horticultural amusement park. He moved the 24 trees to the new location which was called Bonfante Gardens Theme Park in Gilroy. “I can even tell you how many power poles there are between Scotts Valley and Gilroy,” said Bonfante in a newspaper interview. “Two hundred and thirty-seven.” He managed the moving with the help of Caltrans, CHP, and one hundred volunteers.

Now, almost 80 years later, the “Four Legged Giant” survives as a single tree in the form of a cupola. As Erlandson’s interest grew from hobby to passion, so did the number of ever more complex experiments he undertook. The result was the famous Tree Circus, which for 17 years drew curious motorists to stop in Scotts Valley. Some of his magnificent trees are still available to be viewed at Gilroy Gardens. Formerly known as Bonfante Gardens.

* [1][2]Quote from book titled My Father “Talked to trees” written by his daughter Wilma Erlandson.
* [3]

The web site for Gilroy Gardens is
Axel N Erlandson on Wikipeida is Link
History of the Tree Circus by Mark Primack

Wilma Erlandson’s book My Father “Talked to trees” it is available at Gilroy Gardens.

Axel N. Erlandson