The Two Legged Tree or Arch (Platanus occidentalis). Source:

You’ve probably never seen anything like The Tree Circus, a collection of artistically grafted trees originally produced by Axel Erlandson (1884–1964), a Swedish American farmer who shaped trees as a hobby. He had noticed that when two branches rubbed together in his hedge, they would sometimes inosculate (self-graft) and decided to experiment.

Axel Erlandson standing under his first creation, the Four Legged Giant, produced by grafting four American plane trees (Platanus occidentalis) together. Source:

Starting in 1925, he began to graft trees together in various shapes on his farm in Hilmar, California. He drew the design on paper first, then pruned, bent and grafted the trees as needed.

He never revealed his techniques, considering them trade secrets. If anyone asked him how he got his trees to grow like that, he insisted it was done by talking to them!

From Hobby to Tourist Attraction

20181126C The Basket Tree adventuretalgache.blogspot.comJPG.JPG
The Basket Tree, composed of 12 American plane trees (Platanus occidentalis) grafted in a circle. Source:

For 20 years, he worked on his own with only his family and a few friends really knowing about his pastime. But eventually he realized it might be possible to show his trees off to the public and make some money from his hobby.

Sign advertising the original The Tree Circus. Source:

His farm was too far off the tourist circuit, so he bought a parcel of land near the main road in the Santa Clara valley and starting transplanting his best trees there, opening The Tree Circus in 1947. It was featured 12 times in the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! newspaper column and also in other publications, which helped stimulate some interest, but the enterprise never had any real success, especially when a new highway directed traffic well away from the garden.

A year before his death in 1964, Erlandson sold the property for $12,000 and a new tourist attraction called The Lost World, with life-sized models of dinosaurs, was created, with only modest success.

Eventually it closed too. The trees were neglected and began to decline. By 1977, there were only 40 of the original 70 tree sculptures left and some were in very bad shape.

The Emblem, composed of three American plane trees (Platanus occidentalis). Source:

The trees were actually scheduled to be bulldozed in 1977 to make room for a hotel development, but were saved at the last minute by the Friends of Scotts Valley Tree Circus, formed specifically for that purpose by local architect and activist, Mark Primack. Although the group never succeeded in having the trees declared a historical or a cultural resource as they intended, at least they delayed the development long enough that the project was abandoned and they also helped take care of the remaining trees.

Their Current Home

The Four Legged Tree is now over 80 years old. Source:

In 1985, a new home was found for the remaining trees in Gilroy, California, about 40 miles (65 km) away thanks to Michael and Claudia Bonfante who were at the time owners of a chain of supermarkets, Nob Hill Foods. 24 of the trees were therefore moved to a new park. For a number of years, it was used as a recreational facility for employees of Nob Hill Foods and also as a tree nursery under the name Tree Haven.

Entrance display at Gilroy Gardens. Source:

After 25 years of effort, the Bonafontes finally completed what was now a nature-themed amusement park and opened it under the name Bonfante Gardens in 2001. It featured not only Erlandson’s trees, but numerous rides and activities for children. However, financial success still proved elusive and Bonfante Gardens changed management several times. It now belongs to the city of Gilroy under the name Gilroy Gardens, Although no longer owners, the Bonafontes remain involved in the current enterprise.

Today, about 20 of Erlandson’s trees, now called the Circus Trees, can still be visited. Others are being restored and may eventually be viewable again. So, if you’re in central California, why not bring the kids or grandkids for a visit? Let them have fun on the rides and water slides … but don’t forget to also point out to them the fabulous examples of living art left to the world by Axel Erlandson!

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The Revolving Door, also known as the Compound Square, developed from a single box elder (Acer negundo). Source:

Side Note

As mentioned, not all of Erlandson’s trees survived, but several preserved dead specimens are found in museums, including in the Museum of Art History in Santa Cruz, California and in the Maryland American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

Quite the story! Kinda makes you want to get out and graft your own Tree Circus, doesn’t it?

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. After studies at the University of Toronto and Laval University where he obtained his B.A. in modern languages in 1978, he succeeded in combining his language skills with his passion for gardening in a novel career as a garden writer and lecturer. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He is a regular contributor to and horticultural consultant for Fleurs, Plantes, Jardins garden magazine and has written for many other garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening, Rebecca’s Garden and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 50 other titles in English and French. He can be seen in Quebec on French-language television and was notably a regular collaborator for 7 years on the TV shows Fleurs et Jardins and Salut Bonjour Weekend. He is the President of the Garden Writers Association Foundation and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. An avid proponent of garden tourism, he has lead garden tours throughout Canada and to the gardens of over 30 countries over the last 30 years. He presently resides in Quebec City, Quebec.

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