Axel N Erlandson’s Tree Circus
Axel Erlandson and his Circus Trees have fascinated people since the 1940s. Axel was very closemouthed about his techniques of shaping trees. When asked he would say “Oh I talk to them”. There has been a great deal conjecture as to how he shaped over 70 trees into marvellous shapes. These trees would became a roadside attraction called the Tree circus, the trees are generally known today as the Circus trees. Some of his trees acquired individual names like telephone booth, knot tree, cathedral, diamond, picture frame, needle and thread, basket tree and many more.
Working out how he did it.
Axel seemed to relish working on a large-scale using timber trees like sycamore and box Elder. Later in life he trialled several others tree species.
Old photos reveal the complicated framework Axel build to guide the growth, the photographs divulge some of his mysteries. By looking closely one can see a series of small-scale wooden blocks to guide the growth around curves. In one of the photos it reveals the construction of new framework being added to an existing design to further guide the tree when it grows that far. He also used timber spacers to sustain the design until the trees could support themselves.
Axel practiced a gradual shaping technique. In his daughter’s book (Wilma Erlandson) ‘My Father “Talked to Trees”‘ she wrote “When the stems of the trees were very young and flexible he shaped them as desired.” Wilma also talks about the role of the framing in the process of shaping the trees. Instead of forcing the trees into position as one tree shaper has advised, Wilma talks about the framework supporting the trees. Quote from ‘My Father “Talked to Trees”‘ “They were then held in place by framework for several years until they were strong enough to stand on their own.”
Modern Tree shapers who use a gradual technique of shaping are GrownUp Furniture and Pooktre. On the internet site GrownUp Furniture by Dr Chris Cattle there is a how to guide about shaping trees.
Where are the trees at present
Though out the life of the Circus Trees there has been a great deal media attention about them. They’ve appeared a dozen times in Ripley’s believe it or not. They’ve continued to appear in media worldwide. Axel never trained an apprentice, this meant as he aged and grew frailer he was not able to look after his trees. After years of trying to sell his trees he negotiated to sell them in 1963. It was just one year later that he died at the age of seventy-nine.
After Axel’s death the trees had a series of owners. Disney tried to purchase them but loss interest when they discovered how much the owner wanted for them. During this time the trees were slowly dying from neglect. Robert Hogan bought the land the trees where living on in 1977, for development. Joseph Cahill, a landscape designer, gave Hogan $12,000 for the trees and was given two and a half years to remove them.
About this time a young a architect Mark Primack went to great lengths to guarantee the survival of the remaining Circus Trees. Mark was awarded an art grant to draw and immortalize them as they were. He went onto the property without permission to tend and water the trees. He became an ardent advocate for saving Axel’s Trees. His campaign to have the trees recognized as an historical or a cultural resource failed. Mark retains an interest in the Circus Trees and the potential they represent. He is considered the Leading authority on Axel Erlandson’s Trees in the world today. On Mark’s internet site there are some photographs of Axel’s trees
Ultimately, in 1984, Michael Bonfante steped forward to purchase the trees for a horticultural amusement park. He moved 24 trees to the new location in Gilroy which was called Bonfante Gardens Theme Park. Were they’re happily flourishing and open to the public today. Bonfante Gardens later changed their name to Gilroy Gardens.
Wilma Erlandson’s book My Father “Talked to trees” is available at Gilroy Gardens.
To see photo’s Axel’s Trees go to this site
History of Axel N Erlandson’s tree circus and some other interesting trees.