The Circus Trees were originally grown and created by Axel Erlandson (pictured at right in his Living Chair), who was born in 1884 to Swedish parents. They immigrated to the United States in 1886. During his early years he grew up in Minnesota but by age 17 his family had moved to the Hilmar Colony near Turlock, CA. Newcomers to the area faced many problems including dry, desert-like land and little water. However, canals soon brought water and a new need arose for the land to be level for irrigation. Erlandson taught himself land surveying, among other skills. If he had continued with this line of work, the Circus Trees may have never existed.
Tree Circus circa 1957This botanical adventure began in Hilmar, CA a little before Axel’s daughter, Wilma, was born in 1928. The “Four-Legged Giant” four Sycamore saplings grafted into a 6 foot square cupola, was his first major project.
Inspired by observing a natural graft between two trees, he began to shape his trees. Erlandson’s intricate grafting techniques resulted in woven wonders made from threads of living wood. Straight tree trunks and branches were carefully bent, rather than cut, and became complex and compound designs in shapes like hearts, lightning bolts, basket weaves and rings. Erlandson claimed to be divinely inspired and spent over 40 years of his life shaping and grafting the bodies and arms of trees. He could control the rate of growth, slowing it down or speeding it up to blend his designs to perfection.
Mark Primack & the Commando Gardeners July 1983In 1945, Wilma and her mother, Leona, took a trip to the Santa Cruz area and during their stay visited the “Mystery Spot”. When they returned home Leona suggested Axel’s trees should be moved there. He must have thought this a grand idea, for he soon bought a ¾-acre lot in Scotts Valley.
The following winter Erlandson dug up his trees, pruning the roots severely and wrapping them in peat moss and burlap sacks to prepare them for the move, over 100 miles away. Replanting in Scotts Valley was complete by April 1, 1946. A year later Axel opened the “Tree Circus” so locals and tourists could experience the wonder of the “World’s Strangest Trees.” It’s said that when children would ask him how he made the trees, he would say “Oh, I talk to them.”
Moving the Four-Legged GiantBy 1957, Erlandson had created more than 70 unique trees. Ripley’s Believe it or Not featured them in the 1940’s and 50’s. In 1957 a LIFE magazine article gave the trees notoriety. The collection of unusual trees appeared in publications often in the United States and other parts of the world.
Moving the Double SpectacleIn 1963, Axel sold his beloved Circus Trees, and after that his health declined. He died of congestive heart failure in 1964. The trees had many owners after Axel’s death. For a while, the trees were part of a Scotts Valley attraction known as “The Lost World”. At one point, even Disney became interested in them. But the tree’s owner asked such an enormously high price that they declined the sale. Imagine if our trees had ended up in Disneyland!
Around 1976, a local Santa Cruz architect, Mark Primack, heard about the ailing trees and eventually led an effort to save them, even risking arrest for trespassing in order to water and feed them. In 1977 the property was again sold with only 40 trees surviving. Pictured above right are the Commando Gardeners with the "Double Spectacle" tree in July 1983. Keeping as many alive as he could, Primack’s efforts finally took root when they attracted the attention of tree lover and Gilroy Gardens founder, Michael Bonfante.
Moving the Basket TreeDue to Michael's creative vision, 29 of the remaining coiled, scalloped and spiral shaped Sycamores, Box Elders, Ash and Spanish Cork trees were saved. During the winter of 1984 they were carefully hand dug and boxed, their roots trimmed, then watered and fertilized to revive the trees. On November 10, 1985 during the "80-Ton Tree Caper", they were hauled over 50 miles of mountains. More than 20 municipal, county and state agencies were involved in the permitting process and the ultimate move to their final home at Bonfante Gardens Theme Park, now known as Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park. Pictured being loaded for the journey...at left is the "Basket Tree"; above left is the "Four-Legged Giant" and above right is the "Double Spectacle".
Moving the Double SpectacleThere are 25 Circus Trees still alive today. Ten of these amazing natural wonders are featured in Dixie Cup Plaza near the turnstile area at the front entrance of our Park. Nine of them are planted in various areas inside the Park. The remaining six trees are behind the scenes and most are not viewable to the public. Recently, the "Needle & Thread", "Almost Circle Cage" and "Flat 3/4 Round Fan" were planted near the Operations Building, and can be glimpsed when leaving the Park or if parking in Lot B. Pictured to the right is Michael with the "Four-Legged Giant".
For more information on the life and tales of the Circus Trees or Axel Erlandson, visit our gift shops for a copy of My Father Talked to Trees, a special publication written by Axel's daughter, Wilma Erlandson. If you would like to see each of our trees in person, pick up a Guide to the Circus Trees brochure from our Welcome Center, located in Sugar Plum Plaza.
These trees represent one of the most visible demonstrations of the love of nature by man—first to create and nourish, then to maintain, and finally to preserve and cherish these stunning creatures. With a lot of love and a bit of luck, Axel Erlandson's Circus Trees will continue to awe children as well as adults who can appreciate the time and talent involved in creating this tribute to nature.