First published: Winter 2001
In 1925, near Turlock, California, a bean and alfalfa farmer called Axel Erlandson began grafting his trees. Bending four sycamores on a six-foot square plot into a cupola, he named it the Four-Legged Giant and encouraged by this initial success, he went on to create more complex designs, working from drawings. He experimented with box elders, birch, ash, elms, and weeping willows, using young and flexible branches bent into loops, hearts, chairs, spiral staircases, zigzags, rings, birdcages, towers, pictures frames and ladders, held in place with a framework for several years until they were capable of self-supporting. The process included grafting and pleaching, as well as other specialist techniques he called ‘trade secrets.
In 1946, after a vacation with his wife in Santa Cruz, where they visited the gravity-defying Mystery Spot, he bought a 3/4 acre lot in nearby Scotts Valley, California. His intention was to move his unusual trees a hundred miles to the new location and to develop a roadside attraction. A year later he opened the Tree Circus which was written up in both Life magazine and in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Although the venture was never the money maker Erlandson had intended, he devoted his life to the trees and delighted in showing them to passing motorists who stopped by. In 1963, he sold the Tree Circus, and died a year later, aged 79.