AXEL ERLANDERSON

basket tree

source: flickr

It is actually six sycamore trees grafted together in 42 different connections

An amazing example of man’s patience and imagination once known as the Tree Circus has been rescued from a forgotten plot in the Santa Cruz mountains and transported to a new home in Gilroy, California where they are now the centerpiece for a horticulturally based theme park called Bonfante Gardens Family Theme Park.

The collection of unusual trees appeared often during the 1940’s and 50’s in Ripley’s “Believe-It-or-Not,” “Life” magazine as well as other publications in the United States and other parts of the world. These trees represent one of the most visible demonstrations of the love of nature by man – first to create and nourish, then to maintain, and finally to preserve and cherish these stunning creatures.

This botanical adventure began in Hilmar, California in the 1920’s when Axel Erlandson (in photo below at left), a farmer by trade, observed the natural grafting of two Sycamores. His first major project consisted of fusing four Sycamore saplings into a cupola that he named the “Four-Legged Giant.” Using intricate grafting techniques, Erlandson wove his wonders with threads of living wood. Straight tree trunks became complex and compound designs in shapes like hearts, lightning bolts, basket weaves and rings.
Erlandson claimed to be divinely inspired and spent over 40 years of his life shaping and grafting the bodies and arms of these full-sized trees. He could control the rate of growth, slowing it down or speeding it up to blend his designs to perfection. In 1945, Erlandson dug and moved a dozen or so of his trees to Scotts Valley, California where he continued to create more natural wonders.

When this son of the land died in 1964, he left a legacy of 74 spectacular trees, but with no one to care for them, they languished and began to die. In the mid-1970’s, a Santa Cruz architect named Mark Primack led a valiant effort to save the trees, even risking arrest for trespassing in order to water and feed the trees. Keeping as many alive as he could, Primack’s efforts finally took root when they attracted the attention of tree lover Michael Bonfante who bought the trees for a theme park he was building in Gilroy.

Due to Bonfante’s creative vision, 29 of the remaining coiled, scalloped and spiral shaped Sycamores, Box Elders, Ash and Spanish Cork trees were saved. During the winter of 1984 they were carefully hand dug and boxed, their roots trimmed, then watered and fertilized to revive the trees. On November 10, 1985, they were hauled over 50 miles of mountains. More than 20 municipal, county and state agencies were involved in the permitting process and the ultimate move to their final home at Bonfante Gardens.