Some horticulturists exhibit superior technical skill. Others possess monumental drive. A very few manifest pure art. Axel Erlandson, a 20th-century visionary who sculpted trees into never-before-seen shapes, combined all of these traits. This retired surveyor and nurseryman literally bent nature to his will, creating a body of work unrivaled in the history of horticulture. Over a 20-year period, Erlandson grafted, shaped and pruned 70 trees on a quarter-acre lot in Scott's Valley, California, into the most amazing shapes. In time, this fantastic collection came to be known simply as "The Tree Circus." Legacy or lunacy? Serious horticulture or pure theater? It's all in the eye of the beholder.
It's hard to describe what Erlandson actually did with trees. Although he used grafting on occasion, his Fellinisque forms also required careful bending, shaping and tying to armatures. He used pleaching (plaiting or interlacing limbs, usually to form arbors) to join together many parts of each living sculpture into a single fabulously-patterned tree. The word topiary applies to clipped and shaped foliage, but here the foliage grows mostly above the main "composition" of limb and trunk. His techniques defy neat classification.
In his early 40s, he began a hobby sculpting living trees. In 1946, due to the promise of developing a roadside attraction and a more hospitable climate along the coast, he and his wife Leona moved 75 miles west. Erlandson barerooted and transplanted nine "living sculptures", the fruits of 20 years' work in Turlock, to new land in Scotts Valley.
The collection was dubbed the "Tree Circus" by Erlandson's daughter Wilma after listening to the comments of guests. Her father devoted himself full-time to his trees, and never put off a visitor He draped sheets to isolate each tree for photographs.
How Erlandson trained the trees is mostly based upon the recollections of a few contemporaries and horticultural deduction, as he jealously guarded his "trade secrets." In Scotts Valley he started many specimens behind a privacy fence, and each grafted or pleached union was wrapped in cloth bandages, not only to protect the healing wound from the sun but to conceal his technique.
Erlandson died virtually broke. From 1947 through 1963 only about 1500 visitors came through in a good year." Though he tried to sell the place in the last few years, he never trained anyone in his methods. A year later, he put up a sign inviting visitors to "See the World's Strangest Trees Here."
Hearing that a developer planned to clear the trees, nurseryman Michael Bonfante purchased them in 1985, and 30 of the healthiest specimens were boxed up and transported to Bonfante's Tree Haven Nursery. Now a horticultural “Amusement Park” near Gilroy, CA. (Some of the 28 which survived the move are pictured here.) Bonfante has replanted these rarest of trees in an amusement park slated for a neighboring parcel, hopefully the final home for the last living "performers" in Axel Erlandson's Tree Circus.
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