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Gilroy's Circus Trees will leave you wondering, 'How did they do that?'

Giant, living sculptures that took decades to grow almost died of neglect before being moved to a theme park in Gilroy.

GILROY, Calif — Among the 10,000 trees that cover Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park are 19 very special trees. These trees look nothing like any other trees in Santa Clara County. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find anything like them in the world. 

They're called the Circus Trees, the life's work of a very talented arborist named Axel Erlandson, according to Gilroy Gardens General Manager Barb Granter.

"We really don't know how he did any of it," Granter said. "He didn't write it down."

Erlandson was a Swedish immigrant and master of a tree-growing technique called grafting. "When you tie them together, they grow into each other and share nutrients," Granter explained.

Credit: KXTV / John Bartell
The Emblem tree is believed to be one of the originals created by Axel Erlandson, and is actually three sycamores, according to Gilroy Gardens.

In 1946, Erlandson created a tourist attraction  in the Scotts Valley area called the Tree Circus. Trees of all shapes and sizes amazed visitors, even catching the attention of Life Magazine and Ripley's Believe It or Not. 

Erlandson experimented a lot with his trees. He made drawings, created special frames, and then built wires braces to shape his trees.

"People would ask how he made the tree like this, and he would tell them that he talked to the trees," Ganter said.

Credit: KXTV / John Bartell
The Arch tree was grown using two sycamores. The arch is 9' 7", according to Gilroy Gardens, where visitors to the park can see the tree.

Erlandson died in 1964. Various people tried — but failed — to make Tree Circus a successful business. For several years, the Circus Trees were left neglected and some died.

Businessman Michael Bonfante went to rescue the trees, which had to be dug up and trucked nearly 100 miles from the Scotts Valley to Gilroy.

"The locals would jump the fence and water the trees," Ganter said. "Then Michael heard about them. Brought them here when he was building what was originally Bonfante Gardens, and now Gilroy Gardens."

Some of the trees, like the Four-legged Giant are nearly 100 years old and are now cared for by a staff of gardeners. In honor of Axel Erlandson, the Circus Trees are scattered through out the park and easily accessible for visitors to see.

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