While visiting San Francisco about ten years ago I decided to make a pilgrimage by myself about an hour and a half south to Gilroy to visit some trees. I can’t remember where I first learned of these mysterious trees but the topic seemed to keep popping up in my life and I was as close to Gilroy as I would ever be so I seized the moment, a camera, and the rental car and headed south.
These amazing trees had been rescued and transplanted to this theme park in Gilroy in 1985 from their home of near abandonment fifty miles away. Gilroy is probably most known for their Garlic Festival and this particular theme park, then known as Bonfante Gardens and now known as Gilroy Gardens, had a garlic theme throughout the park, at least when I visited. Their “teacup” spinning ride had giant garlic bulbs that people would sit inside instead of teacups! If you’ve never gone to a family theme park by yourself, I can’t say I’d recommend it; it feels really strange wandering around one of these places solo especially if you are riding any of the rides! I happened to arrive on the first day that they were open for the season and the experience reminded me of the trip to Walley World that the Griswold’s took in National Lampoon’s Vacation but I was a bit more lucky than they were because they arrived and the park was closed!
The history of these fascinating trees dates back to 1925 when a Swedish farmer, named Axel Erlandson, living in California with only a fourth grade education, took up the hobby to amuse himself and his friends and family. First he would draw his concepts on paper and then experimented with pruning and grafting of Sycamores, Ash, Spanish Cork and Box Elders. The Basket Tree was a circle of Sycamores carefully grown and grafted together at 72 junctures. As the trees matured, he opened a roadside attraction to display them and make enough money to support him during his retirement years. After his death, the trees fell into neglect and the park into disrepair, until 1985 when Michael Bonfante rescued the trees and had them transplanted to the Gilroy Gardens.
Erlandson’s Circus Trees were featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not as well as Life Magazine. To this day, it is unknown how he could create some of the sculptures he made and he guarded this information as trade secrets. When Alex died in 1964, the trees entered a state of slow abandonment and decline and were slated to be bulldozed. Their rescue is largely attributed to a young architect, Mark Primack, who stated “I know of no other single person who has taken ornamental grafting to such an extreme, it is not just an oddity. It demonstrates an intriguing option for improving our environment by creating an absolutely unique space of living sculpture.”
Check out this short video of the Basket Tree today. With the wind blowing through the leaves, the tree seems so lively and happy.