Tree shaping: Axel Erlansond’s famous Circus Trees are now in Gilroy Gardens

Milica Sterjova
Bonfante Gardens, Gilroy, CA. By UncleVinny – CC BY 3.0

Arbor sculpting, also known as tree shaping, is a practice that has been around for hundreds of years. Plants can be shaped into various desired forms by using different methods.

One of the most famous tree shaping projects came from Axel Erlandson, a Swedish-American, who practiced tree shaping as a hobby. He was the man behind the so called “Tree Circus.”

Erlandson started tree-shaping around 1925 after noticing that trees had the curious tendency to graft themselves together naturally and form interesting shapes.

He first started drawing designs on paper which he later brought to life by transforming trees in his own garden. It was a slow process taking years to complete but the curious tree forms amused Erlandson’s family and friends.

The first of the circus trees was named The Four-Legged Giant. The tree was planted in the 1920s and consists of four American sycamores. Another tree, perhaps the most famous, is the “Basket”, which is made from six American sycamores.

In 1945, Erlandson’s wife and daughter visited the Mystery Spot, a tourist attraction in California.

The Basket Tree. Jeremy Thompson. CC BY 2.0

After they returned from the trip, they gave him an idea: if he could relocate the trees close to a place where there were more tourists, then perhaps he would be able to make a profit from his hobby.

Erlandson liked the idea and purchased a small piece of land near the main road that led to the ocean.

The trees were carefully relocated from the family’s farm in Hilmar to Scotts Valley. In 1947, he opened The Tree Circus, a tree museum where some of his most unusual trees were on display.

Compound Square or Revolving Door Tree. Jeremy Thompson. CC BY 2.0

Right after the attraction’s opening Erlandson wrote to the famous Robert Ripley, the creator of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, and sent him photos of his shaped trees.

Ripley was astonished by Erlandson’s creation and over the years, The Tree Circus appeared in the column 12 times.

When asked what is his secret and how he managed to shape the trees in such peculiar forms, Erlandson told the column that he talked to them. Even Life magazine published a story about Erlandson’s creations in the 1950s.

Sideways Rope Rectangle. Jeremy Thompson. CC BY 2.0

Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned and the profit he made from the trees was far lower than initially expected. He would make a little above $300 in a good year.

This led to selling land along with the 70 trees in 1963. Larry and Peggy Thompson bought the plot for $12,000 and employed Erlandson to take care of his creation.

The Thompson couple wanted to open a park called “The Lost World” which would feature about 30 realistic models of dinosaurs.

Erlandson died in 1964 and he never saw the opening of the new park.

The Four-legged Giant, the oldest tree in the garden. Taneli Mielikäinen. CC BY-SA 2.0

Thompson’s project wasn’t a financial success either. In the years that followed, the property changed owners but none of them had much interest in taking care of the shaped trees.

By 1977 only about 40 of the shaped trees survived and all of them were scheduled to be removed in order to build a new mall.

Although not a commercial success, the trees were well-known and apparently well-loved by locals, who formed a committee with the single goal of saving the Circus Trees from destruction.

Mark Primack and Joseph Cahill are largely responsible for the continued survival of the trees.

Double Hearts. Jeremy Thompson. CC BY 2.0

Cahill bought the trees and was given two and a half years to move them to a new location. Primack was the one that took care of them during this period.

The trees were not moved in the given time period so their future didn’t look bright, but the planned mall didn’t go ahead. As the years passed, they were once again neglected.

Fortunately, in 1985, a horticultural enthusiast called Michael Bonfante bought the remaining trees.

Some of the oldest surviving botanical gardens in Europe

He then moved them to his Bonfante Gardens later renamed Gilroy Gardens. About 25 of the original Circus Trees are still alive today in Gilroy.