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Stops on the Way

Deep-Rooted Secret at Gilroy Gardens

When Axel Erlandson died, he left behind his legendary circus trees. Here’s how two strangers saved them.

Four-Legged Giant Circus Tree
Four-Legged Giant Circus TreeTori Peglar

When children asked Axel Erlandson how he shaped his trees into giant baskets, bird cages and a telephone booth, he told them he talked to his trees.

What he whispered to his sycamores, box elders and ash trees, no one will ever know. Erlandson died in 1964, taking with him his deeply rooted secret. Not even his daughter, Wilma Erlandson, 90, was privy to his methods. But somehow, he tricked his trees into believing they could do more with their lives than just grow toward the sky in a straight line.

“For my father, they were like family,” recalls Wilma Erlandson, smiling at memories of her father fashioning his trees into wildly improbable shapes.

The fact that 25 of Erlandson’s trees are still alive is rather miraculous. Neglected by a developer who bought the land Erlandson once owned in Scotts Valley, the trees were saved first by architect Mark Primack and later by supermarket president Michael Bonfante, both of whom shared Erlandson’s passion for trees. Today, you can see the “circus trees” at Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park in Gilroy, Calif. Planted in different areas of the 536-acre park, the trees are part of founder Bonfante’s vision to inspire and educate young people about the natural world around them.

Basket Tree in Gilroy Gardens
Basket Tree in Gilroy GardensTori Peglar

The oldest tree in the park is the 93-year-old “Four-Legged Giant,” and you’ll find it elegantly rising above a bed of scarlet roses standing in Mission Plaza. There’s a little white sign next to it that reads, “I am the oldest, but I am in great shape!” Erlandson started working on the “The Four-Legged Giant” several years before Wilma was born in 1928. Up until that point, he had faced challenging times as a Swedish immigrant who arrived by box car in Hilmar, Calif., at age 17 with dreams of fertile land. Instead, he discovered dry earth that desperately needed irrigation.

When he wasn’t farming his 40-acre property in Hilmar, Calif., he spent time shaping four sycamore trees into one. As the Four-Legged Giant took shape, Erlandson grew hooked on his new hobby, eventually transforming 60-70 trees during his lifetime into diamonds, cathedrals and rings. For Erlandson, turning trees into art may have been a way of lightening the heaviness of trying to earn a living from an unforgiving land.

Over time, he realized the Four-Legged Giant deserved more in life than to just sit in a farm field. In 1946, Erlandson dug her up, moving her and his other trees to nearly an acre of land on a touristy stretch of Hwy. 17 in Scotts Valley 100 miles away. He hoped his trees would become a popular roadside attraction, bringing the family much needed income. While they survived the move and appeared in Life magazine in 1957 and Ripley’s Believe It or Not multiple times, they never drew the crowds he envisioned.

Time passed and the trees grew. Visitors came and went. But Erlandson’s health began to fail, and he realized he could no longer care for the trees. In 1963, he sold the land with his trees on it. He died a year later of heart failure.

As his property passed through different owners, the circus trees remained, but no one cared for them like Erlandson. One day, Santa Cruz architect Mark Primack caught sight of them while driving by the abandoned property. He stopped.

As a college student in Ireland, he had written about how living trees could be incorporated into architectural design. Before him stood the trees he had imagined years earlier. Determined to save the unusual trees, he trespassed on the property to document and care for them, eventually spearheading a community movement in the early 1980s to save them.

When Michael Bonfante, president of Nob Hill Foods, heard about the trees’ plight in 1983, he knew he had to save them. Earlier in his career, he had discovered that being around trees reduced his work-related stress. It led him to open up a tree business and travel around the world, researching how he could open a tree-themed park for the public.

At this point, only 31 circus trees were still alive. Bonfante bought them. Loading them carefully on flatbed trucks, he transported 25 of the healthiest circus trees to Gilroy, Calif., where he had already built a recreational park for his employees. The trees’ arrival pushed Bonfante closer to realizing his dream of what would become Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park.

But before he opened the park, Bonfante sold Nob Hill Foods, which he had grown to 27 stores with 2,500 employees. It was time for him to devote more of his resources to the park. In 2001 Gilroy Gardens opened to the public.

“Based on horticulture, and trees in particular, I wanted to share the pleasure and experience of trees with young kids,” says Bonfante, who notes the Basket Tree is his favorite of the circus trees. “The park has brought to the world an opportunity to feel the impact of mother nature.”

When you arrive at Gilroy Gardens, which features absolutely stunning gardens, trees from all over the world and 21 children’s rides fashioned into giant mushrooms, bananas and garlic bulbs, look for Erlandson’s circus trees, including the stunning Four-Legged Giant.With 500,000 visitors a year, Gilroy Gardens has helped the circus trees achieve the fame Erlandson dreamed of more than 70 years ago.

As you explore, you’ll pass an outdoor exhibit dedicated to the circus trees. On one of the panels, you’ll find the words of playwright William Shakespeare. They might as well been written by Erlandson himself.

“These trees shall be my books,” he wrote. 

For more information:
Gilroy Tourism Bureau
(408) 842-6436