In the 1950s, California's southern coastline could be mapped by its roadside attractions. A land of limitless dreams and unclaimed parcels of soil, it offered post-war America the opportunity to see and do the improbable. And, as California has always been a spectacle of botanic wonders, it is entirely fitting that one such oddity was called The Tree Circus, and it beckoned with a sign that read "SEE THE WORLD'S STRANGEST TREES HERE." Today, grafted trees are commonly known as arborscultpures; at the time, they truly were the most fantastic in all the land.
The circus was built by Axel Erlandson, a Swedish born bean farmer. As the story goes, one day he happened to notice that two trees on his farm had curiously fused together. Known as inosculation, the natural grafting of adjacent trees is not uncommon. But to Erlandson, a farmer with a fourth grade education, it was a fascinating discovery. He began drafting ideas for a series of trees with deliberately grafted designs, the prospect of which delighted his wife and daughter. Under his slow and patient hand, a field of saplings grew into a small orchard of surreal sculptures. Particularly popular among friends was "Four Legged Giant," a gazebo of four sycamores that were grafted into one elevated trunk. For the next twenty years, the bean farmer amused friends and family with his curious designs. A true showman, Erlandson enjoyed the mystery of his expertise; to inquiries regarding his methods, he would reply "I talk to them."
Axel Erlandson (left); his daughter Wilma and wife Leona (right). Images courtesy Wilma Erlandson / cabinetmagazine.org
In 1945, Erlandson decided that the trees were ready for a curious public. He purchased a 3/4 acre lot in Scotts Valley, nestled in the hills of Santa Cruz. Seventy of his best sculptures were installed in The Tree Circus: birdcage, ladder, spirals, a telephone booth, and a staircase, all fashioned from the pliable branches of birch, ash, elms, and weeping willows—a showcase surely worth the price of admission (30¢), believed Erlandson. Unfortunately, the numbers disagreed. In 1947, when The Tree Circus was launched, 110 visitors were received. The following year, only 89. Meanwhile, it was a bit of a media darling. LIFE magazine profiled the Circus, and it was featured twelve times in Robert Ripley's magazine, alongside other of the World's Strangest Things. Despite this acclaim, Erlandson's venture would never become financially successful. The circus closed in 1963, when Erlandson sold the property and the trees within. He died shortly thereafter, lamenting that he had no apprentice to continue his work, which he believed had great potential. The land was purchased by entrepreneurs with a different dream; they planned to install large plastic dinosaurs.
Albeit sadly posthumous, Erlandson's legacy is not small, and many of his trees are, once again, enjoying an audience. Having been photographed and publicized by Mark Primack, a local Santa Cruz architect, the trees became a bit of a cause célèbre in 1984, when a debate started about whether the trees were a historic landmark or whether they should be bulldozed. Thankfully, they were swept out of the debate by Michael Bonfante, a California entrepreneur and horticultural enthusiast. He bought the trees and transported them to his new venture: Gilroy Gardens, in Gilroy, California. Here, at "California's Only Horticultural Educational Theme Park," twenty-five of Erlandson's trees are on display, including his first, the Four-Legged Giant.
Anna Laurent is a writer and producer of educational botanical media. Photographs from her forthcoming field guide to Los Angeles are available for exhibition and purchase at the author's shop.