A Californian farmer in Santa Cruz did, and some of his creations are still alive today, helping children discover the magic of trees and the beauty of the natural world. His techniques were simple, and you can create your own circus trees at home with a little practice – we’ll see how.

After World War II, highways and cars began to dominate American life. ‘Going for a drive’ became a popular form of family entertainment and a opportunity to show off the new car, and to experience the novelty of driving. These drives often went out of the city into the surrounding rural areas, which still had a pastoral quality of small farms and homesteads. This was true even in California, which at that time already had a large urban population, but where almost one in three citizens still lived in rural areas. Those families driving along once-empty roads soon became restless, and they were easily attracted by any diversion.

Locals created imaginative places to visit, like the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, with its supposed ‘gravitational anomalies’, or the Court of Mysteries, built at night by a bricklayer who had come from Pennsylvania. So the arrival in sleepy Scotts Valley, one day in 1947, of Axel Erlandson and his wife, with a truckload of weird plants, would have not have seemed out of place. He quickly put up a sign to catch the eye of passing drivers that read, "See the World's Strangest Trees Here." His daughter Wilma soon came up with a better idea, and the site was re-christened, The Tree Circus.

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Erlandson had been working on his trees since he was a young man. Born in Sweden in 1884, his family had migrated to America when Axel was just two years old and settled in Minnesota. There they farmed and operated a lime kiln, turning limestone rock into quicklime for mortar and whitewash. When Axel was a teenager they packed up and moved to California, joining some other Swedish families in founding a fundamentalist Christian colony in Hilmar. Axel married, and started his own farm nearby, growing beans and other crops for a living. At some point he was fascinated by some trees that had naturally grafted together, growing in one of his hedges, and in 1925 he began experimenting for himself.

Grafting has been carried out since Roman times, and even earlier in China. Probably these earliest grafters were inspired by the same phenomenon that Axel saw – called by botanists, inosculation. When two trees of the same species grow close together, trunk expansion brings them into tighter and tighter contact until a natural graft forms, and the trees become conjoined. Sometimes these natural occurrences have been called ‘husband and wife’ trees. Grafting is more difficult the further apart the two plants are – so members of the same species graft easily, those of the same genus usually work, but success with plants further apart than that is much rarer. The easy graft of inosculation has been long used, for example, by hedge growers, who sliced off the bark of two branches and tied them together, making the hedge stronger. The classic method of pleaching a hedge, where the branches are interwoven, creates numerous naturally conjoined branches as the stems thicken. It even happens below ground, where natural root-grafting is well-known both as a pathway for disease and a route for chemical messages, from one tree to another.

Erlandson was not the first to use inosculation to create living objects. At the beginning of the 20th century, John Krubsack, a Wisconsin farmer and banker, had grown a chair by joining sycamore saplings together, finally harvesting it – and sitting in it – in 1914. It was apparently his only attempt at tree sculpture.

Axel probably knew nothing of Krubsack, or those long-standing practices from horticulture, but he was intrigued, and found that he could create conjoined trees for himself. He would plan out his designs on paper, and then plant and manipulate the trees to achieve his goals. Over the years he created many unique specimens, such as the Basket Tree, made from a circle of six sycamore trees, repeatedly grafted together in a diamond pattern.

Like a naïf artist, he created his own methods, without guidance, but through perseverance and a knack for experimentation. He never revealed his techniques, although they can be surmised from his creations. Instead he considered them trade secrets, and would say when asked, “I talk to them.”

For years the trees sat unseen on his farm, but after a trip to Santa Cruz by his wife and daughter, where they visited the Mystery Spot mentioned earlier, a plan began to form in Axel’s mind. Perhaps collecting money from passing town-folk was better than growing beans? He purchased that small lot in the town of Scotts Valley, between Santa Clara and the ocean. Another attraction, The Beverly Gardens, with its zoo of birds and animals had been there since the 1930s. Santa’s Village, part of America’s first theme-park chain, would arrive in the 1950s.

Axel worked hard to publicize his collection, and sent photographs of his trees to Robert Ripley, who drew a widely-syndicated comic strip, called ‘Believe It or Not’, highlighting bizarre and unique ‘facts’ of popular interest. Axel’s trees were featured several times in the strip, which was so iconic that it must have attracted attention to the Tree Circus. The December 1955 issue of Popular Mechanics also featured his trees and includes a rare photograph of how he trained them, similar to this one.

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A wooden ladder-like bracing system is being used to create a spiral from two young willow trees – it’s clear it took more than ‘talk’ to make these trees. In 1957 Life Magazine also ran a picture spread on the Tree Circus.

Despite the publicity, the Tree Circus did not flourish. The main highway was re-routed and became Highway 17, taking away much of the passing traffic. While Santa’s Village thrived, the Tree Circus held little interest for most Sunday drivers. In a good year he took in a few hundred dollars, and by 1963 he gave up and sold the lot, with all the trees on it, for $12,000. Kept on as a caretaker, Erlandson died the following year, aged 79.

The new owners, Larry and Peggy Thompson, re-vamped the Tree Circus as The Lost World, and brought in about 25 large dinosaur models. The Tree Circus became The Enchanted Forest. Larry died before the official opening, but Peggy did open the park, with some success, because the dinosaurs attracted drivers as the trees never had. The property went through a decade of uncertainty and failure after Peggy tried to sell it, and in 1977 it was bought by a property developer.

At its peak there were around 70 trees in the Circus, but that number soon declined from neglect to around 40. Erlandson had never trained anyone in his methods, something he regretted, but help arrived from a new generation. Mark Primack, recently graduated as an architect, and his friend Joseph Cahill, a landscape designer, got together to save the trees from the proposed shopping mall. Primack had just finished his thesis in England on co-evolution and the reintegration of architecture with the natural world, and Erlandson’s trees were a revelation to him of how the future could be built. Cahill paid $12,000 for the trees from the developer, with a provision to remove them within 2½ years. Despite Primack’s meticulous cataloguing of the trees, the support of local citizens through the Scott Valley Committee, and the team of ‘Commando Gardeners’ working on the site, the trees were not removed in time. Fortunately for the trees the development project fell through, and more time passed.

The Tree Circus held a great attraction for dreamers of a life with closer links with nature. Next on the scene were Michael and Claudia Bonfante. Michael Bonfante has a passion for trees, and he began his first nursery in 1975, ultimately combining it with a recreational facility for employees of his grocery chain (Knob Hill Foods) on a property in Gilroy, California. In 1985 he learned of Erlandson’s trees languishing nearby, and he saw the remaining 29 trees of the Tree Circus as an attraction that would add to the viability of his project. They were dug up and transported to the Gilroy site – finally safe. Later, he decided to make the property into a theme park, adding rides to make it profitable.

Bonfante sold his grocery chain and in 2001 opened the Bonfante Gardens Theme Park – California’s only horticultural theme park. Today called Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park, the park still features Erlandson’s trees as a major attraction, accessible to everyone for the price of admission.

Now Try This at Home

If you are inspired by the Tree Circus, the methods used are straightforward, involving a combination of pruning, training to frames, and in-arch grafting. Fast-growing trees would be the obvious way to get quick results. Erlandson used willow, poplar (Populus tremuloides) and sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), but any fast-growing tree with flexible stems will work, depending on where you garden. Willow has the advantage of being easy to grow from hard-wood cuttings placed directly in the ground in fall. Any of the non-weeping species, such as Salix alba or Salix lucida should work well.plan and completed product - erlandson

The garden equivalent of the natural inosculation described earlier is approach grafting, where both trees are still on their roots. This is much easier than grafting with a detached scion, and it is almost 100% successful. The best season is late winter or early spring, before bud-break, and the technique is simple. Remove two matching pieces of bark by slicing them off with a clean, very sharp knife. It is very important that the cut surfaces are flat. Attach the two pieces together, matching up the edges of the bark. Stems of the same thickness are the easiest, as the area just beneath the bark – the cambium layer - must contact exactly on both trees. Tie the stems tightly together with flexible, water-proof, non-adhesive tape such as Parafilm® Grafting tape. Once the trees have leafed out and are growing well, remove the tape and voila, you have begun your very own Tree Circus.

For more advanced shapes, Erlandson appears to have also used side-grafting, and other basic grafts, such as the cross-pieces he inserted in his Tree Ladder or used to add arches into his trees. The wooden frames he built are also needed, to support the shapes until the stems thicken enough to become self-supporting. With fast-growing trees, it should be possible to create simple forms within a few years. Since Erlandson, tree sculpture has spread, and today there is a world-wide group of artists creating unique forms from living trees.

Many thanks to Julee Wood of Gilroy Gardens for providing these historic images of Erlandson and his trees.