Circus Trees: one of California’s hidden gems

Discover the fantastic world of tree creations by Axel Erlandson

Nature always has wonders to offer us and captivate us. An example of this is the Circus Trees located in Gilroy, California.

Planted, harvested, and preserved with highly specialized care, these trees are one of the hidden gems in the state for both locals and tourists, located at Gilroy Gardens, a theme park we have talked about previously..

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The history behind Circus Trees

These plants were originally created and harvested by Axel Erlandson, a Swedish farmer who was raised in Minnesota.

In 1901, 17-year-old Axel and his family moved to Hilmar Colony near Turlock, California.

Erlandson learned surveying, a branch of topography that establishes limits in surfaces, area measurements, and limit adjustments, among other things, all by himself.

However, in 1928 following his passion for nature, the farmer started to work in geometrically-shaped trees, before his daughter, Wilma, was born.

It is said that one time he noticed a natural graft between two trees that created an interesting shape and that gave him the inspiration to give his own trees a kind of shape.

The "Four-Legged Giant" was his first great project.

Erlandson posing with the "Four-Legged Giant" (Photo:
Erlandson posing with the "Four-Legged Giant" (Photo:

He carefully folded the trunks and branches of trees instead of cutting them, making them into complex designs shaped like hearts, lightings, baskets, and rings.

In the first few years, this was only a hobby for Erlandson, until 1945, when his daughter and wife, Wilma and Leona, visited the ‘Santa Cruz Mystery Spot’, a gravitational anomaly located in a forest near Santa Cruz, California. This was a place of interest for tourists, as visitors could experience several demonstrations that defied gravity.

Inspired by this, Leona advised her husband to move the trees there. It was next winter, when Erlandson carefully unearthed his creations, pruned the roots, and wrapped them in peat moss.

It was then that the trees were moved 1000 miles to Scotts Valley, city located in Santa Cruz County. Replanting was concluded on April 1, 1946.

Motivated by this idea, in 1947, they decided to open their own attraction: Circus Trees.

Original sign at the entrance. (Photo:
Original sign at the entrance. (Photo:

Here, locals and tourists were able to see the "World's Strangest Trees."

It is said that when children asked how they were made, Erlandson answered "Oh, I talk to them."

Erlandson claimed to be divinely inspired and spent more than 40 years of his life giving shape and creating the crafts in the trees. He was able to control their growth, make it slower or speed it up and combine the tree’s designs and make them perfect.

By 1957, he had created more than 70 unique trees.

Ripley's Believe It Or Not showed them off in the 1940s and 1950s, and an article in LIFE magazine brought attention to the trees; they appeared in publications in the United States and other parts of the world.

Photo: Gilroy Dispatch
Photo: Gilroy Dispatch

Sadly, by 1963, Axel sold his dear trees to the circus and his health worsened. He died of congestive heart failure in 1964.

Erlandson never told anyone the secret behind how he was able to create these wonderful trees, which is why, after he died, his tree sculptures started to die due to lack of care.

But, what happened later?

Trees had many owners after Axel's death. For a while, the trees were part of a Scotts Valley attraction known as “The Lost World”. At one point, even Disney became interested in them. But the tree’s owner asked such an enormously high price that they declined the sale.

Around 1976, a local Santa Cruz architect, Mark Primack, heard about the ailing trees and led a valiant effort with his “Commando Gardeners” to save them, even risking arrest for trespassing in order to care for them.

Mark Primack under the "Four-Legged Giant" (Photo: Janet Pollock)
Mark Primack under the "Four-Legged Giant" (Photo: Janet Pollock)

In 1977, the property was sold again and only 40 trees survived. Primack’s efforts finally took root when they attracted the attention of tree lover and Gilroy Gardens founder, Michael Bonfante.

Thanks to Michael's creative vision, the remaining 29 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 Theme Park, now known as Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park.

Discover Circus Trees!

Currently, there are 25 Circus Trees that are still alive. 10 of these natural wonders can be found at Dixie Cup Plaza, the main entrance to Gilroy Gardens.

9 are planted in several areas inside the park and the remaining 6 are kept out of the public's eye to take care them and preserve them, as they are weak.

You can find a 'Zig Zag' near Uncle John's BBQ in Gilroy Gardens. (Photo: Gilroy Gardens)
You can find a 'Zig Zag' near Uncle John's BBQ in Gilroy Gardens. (Photo: Gilroy Gardens)

If you want to learn more about this, you can read the book ‘My Father Talked to Trees’ by Wilma Erlandson, daughter of the creator of the Circus Trees, on Amazon: en línea or buy it at the park's gift shop. In addition, you can pick up a guide to the Circus Trees to help you locate them in the park. Get them at the Welcome Center.

Without a doubt, these trees represent one of the most notable demonstrations of love of nature by humans.

With a lot of love, patience, and a little bit of luck, Axel Erlandson's Circus Trees will continue to amaze children and adults, who will be able to appreciate the dedication and talent involved in the creation of this beautiful tribute to nature.

Source: Gilroy Gardens


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