Gilroy Gardens - Home of The Circus Trees!®
The Circus Trees were originally grown and created by Axel Erlandson, born in 1884 to Swedish parents. During his early years he grew up in Minnesota but by age 17 his family had moved to the Hilmar Colony near Turlock, CA. Erlandson taught himself land surveying, among other skills. If he had continued with this line of work, the Circus Trees may have never existed.
This 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. His 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.
In 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. 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 to Scotts Valley, CA. Replanting 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.”
By 1957, Erlandson had created more than 70 unique trees. Ripley’s Believe it or Not featured them in the 1940’s and 50’s. A LIFE magazine article gave the trees notoriety. The Circus Trees appeared in publications in the United States and other parts of the world.
In 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 led a valiant effort with his “Commando Gardeners” to save them, even risking arrest for trespassing in order to care for them. In 1977 the property was again sold with only 40 trees surviving. Primack’s efforts finally took root when they attracted the attention of tree lover and Gilroy Gardens founder, Michael Bonfante.
Due to Michael's creative vision, 29 of the remaining 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. You can see video of that excursion here. 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.
There 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 are not viewable to the public.
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 to help you locate them in our park.
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.
Click the pictures below to learn more about each tree.