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Axel Erlandson: Creator of the “Circus Trees”

Tree slide

It started out as a hobby for Axel Erlandson, a bean farmer, but eventually his uniquely shaped trees changed the world. By learning how to bend trees and coaxing them to grow in strange directions, Erlandson’s trees became a sensation.

In 1945, Erlandson’s daughter and his wife visited the ocean near Santa Cruz, California, where they saw people lined up to pay to see such oddities as tilted buildings at the Mystery Spot. They returned home and mentioned offhandedly to Axel that if his trees were on a well-traveled tourist route, they might draw people who would pay to see them.

Axel jumped on the idea and bought a small parcel of land, on the main road between the Santa Clara Valley and the ocean, in Scotts Valley, California, where he started the process of transplanting the best of his trees to their new home. The media starting calling them “Circus Trees” and pretty soon people from all over the world flocked to see them.

To create the “Basket Tree”, Erlandson planted six sycamore trees in a circle, topped them all at one foot, then approach-grafted them together one to another to form the diamond patterns. Erlandson was very secretive on how he managed to pull of this bizarre feat and carried out his work behind screens to protect his secrets from spies.

When Erlandson died in 1964 his elaborate efforts to take his secret to the grave seemed to have paid off, as nobody has been able to recreate his artistry work ever since. Erlander’s famous “Circus Trees” were later bought by millionaire Michael Bonfante, who transplanted them to his amusement park Gilroy Gardens in 1985, where you can still see them today.