We all have hobbies, things we like to do to get away from the stresses of life. Axel Erlandson had a very unique hobby of training trees to grow into strange shapes, which today is called tree sculpting or simply tree shaping. This practice is similar to other tree shaping techniques such as pleaching, bonsai, espalier, and topiary.
Axel was born in Sweden in 1884 and moved to America with his family as a boy in 1886. He grew up in Minnesota, and when he was 17 he and his family moved to California. When Axel grew up he stayed in California and began farming beans and alfalfa. One day he observed some trees growing together by means of natural grafting called “inosculation”, which inspired him to begin experimenting with his own trees to see if he could get them to grow into living sculptures. He started planting trees in patterns and by bending, tying, and other processes was able to encourage them to grow and graft together into unique designs. These became his first simple experiments, and as he found success it became his hobby to see just how far he could take the idea of tree manipulation. When asked what his secret was for getting his trees to grow in these shapes he sometimes replied, “Oh, I talk to them.”
With encouragement from his wife and daughter Axel decided to display his trees to the public, and in 1947 opened a park with a sign, “See World’s Strangest Trees Here.” Eventually the sign was changed to the Tree Circus and in 1957 an article in Life magazine made the trees world famous. The Tree Circus was also featured several times in Ripley’s be believe it or not, which is a franchise founded by Robert Ripley which displays bizarre items and events through a variety of formats including radio, television, comic books, and a chain of museums and book series.
By 1957, Axel had created 70 trees into unique shapes of ladders, hearts, honeycombs, spirals, and zigzags. Many of the trees had names that included, “The Four Legged Giant,” “Hourglass Tree,” “Needle and Thread,” and “Lightning Bolt.”
It took many years to grow the trees into their unique shapes and Axel later regretted not taking on an apprentice as it became more and more difficult to care for his trees as he grew older. Axel also never passed on the secrets of his success and the information was taken with him when he died in 1964 at the age of 79.
The trees were passed on to a number of different owners, but the Tree Circus never became much of a success. The trees were slowly dying of neglect, but in 1984 Micael Bonfante bought the trees for a horticulture amusement park and careful dug, boxed, and moved 29 of the remaining trees over 50 miles to what is now Gilroy Gardens. Today there are 25 of the trees still living and you can see many of them in various places throughout the park at Gilroy Gardens.
For more information about these trees and where to see them in person visit: https://www.gilroygardens.org/