As gardeners we all know that woody plants are very adaptable. Think of topiary or cloud pruning, of pleaching or hedging where with a little bit of effort we can manipulate trees and shrubs into doing what we want, using their natural instincts to keep growing to our own advantage.
When I saw this 16thc miniature I wondered what was going on but as I started looking closer I realised that our manipulation of plants can be taken to a completely different level.
And then I found these much more modern images and they inspired this post.
Perreal’s miniature is an illustration to accompany a version of the epic late medieval poem Roman de la Rose.[which I wrote about a while back] It shows a rather risqué Nature sitting on a “living” chair, talking to an alchemist whose laboratory can be seen in the background. The chair has three legs/roots labelled Mineralia, Vegetabilia, and Sensitiva. But look at the back of it. It’s high and very intricate, and the interlocking pattern hasn’t been made by pruning, twisting or tying the branches into that shape, but by using a natural process known technically as inosculation. This happens when trees of the same kind growing together, for example in a hedge, have some branches which overlap, and in the process of rubbing together wear away the bark so the cambium layer or living growth tissues, underneath then eventually fuse together and grow as one – just like the trees on the right.
The painting is obviously contrived yet the way the chair-back is depicted looks “correct”, as if the painter had seen or at least understood inosculation and knew how it operated although I can’t find any other early images or texts that describe it. So where did Perreal get the idea from? Presumably he’d seen something that inspired him. Was it a natural occurrence or had someone attempted to “grow” a chair like it?
Certainly there are plenty of examples from the early modern period of what we might now call elaborate treehouses, where “buildings” or “rooms” were incorporated into the structure of a tree’s branches and the tree trained around them, but there’s no evidence that I can see of any that appear to be deliberately using inosculation or even grafting as part of the construction. That’s not to say they weren’t of course so you know of anything that might prove/disprove the idea let me know.
I did wonder about some of the 18thc rustic architects and designers like William Wrighte whose books including Grotesque Architecture have some very fanciful pieces but I think if they had been grown rather than fashioned we’d have been told in no uncertain terms.
In fact the earliest proven example I can find isn’t until 1903, when a small-town banker from Wisconsin whose hobby was making furniture decided to give it go. His name was John Krubsack and after a friend admired a rustic chair he had made he is supposed to have replied that “one of these days I am going to grow a piece of furniture that will be better and stronger than any human hands can build.”
He began in 1903 by planting seeds of Acer negundo, [box elder to most Americans] in his garden. 4 years later in the spring of 1907 he selected 32 small saplings and transplanted them. He told the rest of the story to his local paper: “I left them to grow for a year until they were six feet tall, before beginning the chair. In spring of 1908 I began to the work of training the young and pliable stems to grow gradually into the shape of a chair.”
“Most of this work consisted of bending the stems… and tying and grafting them together so as to grow, if possible, with all the joints cemented by nature.” It worked. But some of the trees grew much faster than others and so were cut back hard to allow the others to catch up. This carried on for seven years, but gradually the non-essential trees were removed until “during the last two years I had only four trees growing. These were the four that constituted the legs…all the other stems were kept alive from these four stems because they were grafted to them. It took a total 11 years from seed to chair being ready to be harvested complete with a gothic backrest, armrests, and a six-branch seat.”
Krubsack’s “Chair That Grew” was exhibited at the 1915 World’s Fair, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, in San Francisco, and hit the media, including newsreel film [as far as I can see sadly now lost]. The chair is apparently still around and owned by descendants
But Krubsack only grew a chair.
Others like Arthur Wiechula had grander dreams. He was a German landscape engineer who in 1926 published Wachsende Häuser aus lebenden Bäumen entstehend, a book on building houses from living trees! [It has never been translated into English and does not seem to be digitally available]
I wonder if he knew the work of William Wrighte’s contempoary, the Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg? In Earths in the Universe, [section 151] published in 1758 Swedenborg described visiting another planet whose inhabitants had temples “constructed of trees, not cut down, but growing in their native soil” which were shaped and ordered “so that they serve for porticos and walks, and by cutting and pruning the branches when they are tender, they fit and prepare them so that while they are growing they may intertwine and unite…Such is their architecture, which they prefer to the most magnificent palaces of our earth.”
It’s more likely though that he knew of the work of another mystic, this time in the Christian tradition, the Austrian Jakob Lorber. Lorber wrote about creating a house from living trees in his book The Household of God. The Almighty he argued would “prefer a living house from a thousand slender cedars standing in a nice circle to a dead one from hewn firs”. Once they had grown together the house would be more secure than any man-made structure but would require patience since it was a slow process.
But there’s a world of difference between dreaming living buildings and actually growing one, so perhaps Wiechula knew of the architectural theories propounded by Sir James Hall?
Hall was interested in the origins of architectural forms and in particular on the origins of the Gothic style. He believed it was based on natural forms and decided to test his theory by growing a “wicker fabric” in his garden. This construction of boughs and twigs “was formed according to the plan of the cloister of Westminster Abbey, by a set of posts of ash about three inches in diameter thrust into the ground, with a set of willow rods of about an inch in diameter applied to them.”
It worked. The willow rooted, as evidenced by the leaves that can be seen sprouting, the roof was thatched and stood about 8ft above the floor inside “so that a person can walk under it with ease.” Even then it was known as the Willow Cathedral .
Unfortunately no matter who’d he’d been influenced by, Wiechula doesn’t seem to have got round to trying to actually build anything from living wood himself so his ideas remained purely speculative.
But probably the most famous and certainly the most ingenious of these early pioneers in what has become known as arborsculpture was Axel Erlandson, whose story was recorded by his daughter Wilma in a booklet called My father Talked to Trees, published in 2001, and which I’m using as the starting point for this section. [The photos come from there unless otherwise stated.]
Erlandson was born in 1884 in Sweden but his family emigrated to Minnesota in 1886, and then moved to California when Axel was 17. Their new home was in an area being opened up for farming but where the soil was poor and there was insufficient water, without irrigation. Out of necessity he taught himself to survey and manage land, then to farm, and then to undertake anything that needed doing, becoming a real jack-of- all-trades, in what was, during the Great Depression, an almost-hand-to-mouth existence.
But alongside his farming he also started a new hobby: training trees, probably inspired a natural inosculation in his own hedgerow. The “Four-Legged Giant”, created from four Sycamore saplings grafted into a 6 foot square cupola, was his first major project started in about 1928.
It would probably have remained a private, slightly cranky, hobby but for the fact that in 1945, his wife and daughter went on holiday near Santa Cruz.
On their return having heard all about the unusual tourist attractions they’d seen such as the Tilting Houses at the Mystery Spot, Axel decided this would might the time and place to use his hobby to make some money. He bought a small plot on the main tourist trail at Scotts Valley a hundred miles from their home and began to transplant some of his specimen tree sculptures there.
Moving large trees safely and successfully is a a slow process and with no guarantee of success. They were pruned hard, and with lots of help then dug up, had their roots cut back hard too before being wrapped in sacking and winched up onto the back of a truck.
They were replanted at Scotts Valley, and with plenty of tlc survived, although it was the spring of 1947 before new growth really began to appear.
Later that year Erlandson opened his garden with the slogan “See the World’s Strangest Trees Here”. He began seeking publicity, and contacted Robert Ripley, a reality radio and TV show host, who specialised in trivia from small town America. Ripley visited and then featured some of Axel’s trees in his shows about a dozen times over the succeeding years. This bought in the public but still didn’t make Axel’s fortune, particularly after a major new road bypassed the site and stopped passing traffic.
This called for new tactics and he renamed the site The Tree Circus. In January 1957 [pp16-7] Life Magazine ran a feature on it saying it beats anything seen at Versailles!
All the time Axel was working on new designs, drawing them out on paper before planting and laying out the framework. Eventually he was working on about 70 specimens in all sorts of shapes and contorted formations and using different species. When visitors asked how he did it, his reply was simple: “I talk to them.”
Of course as he grew older the maintenance became harder and harder. Reluctantly but inevitably, in 1963 he finally sold up staying on as manager for the new owners, but died the following year aged 79.
The Tree Circus then changed hands several times but as housing development spread so the plot became a desirable building plot and eventually was bought by a property developer who had no interest in the trees.
Luckily development was stalled and although many trees died of neglect, a rescue mission was mounted in 1976 by a group of “Commando Gardeners” who saw the interest and value of the bizarre collection. They included a young architect Mark Primack who catalogued the collection and helped buy the trees from the developer.
It wasn’t until 1983 however that their future was secured and owner of a local chain of supermarket stores, Michael Bonfante, whose hobby and passion was trees, bought the 29 best of the surviving specimens.
Once again they were pruned and boxed up ready to be moved again in the winter of 1985. The 4 legged giant alone needed a case 10ft square and 5 ft deep. The convoy taking them was so large that it required a police escort, and people to accompany them to lift electricity and phone wires out of the way. It was a mammoth community effort and luckily was was filmed for posterity.
Their new home was in a park and plant nursery founded in 1975 by Bonfante and his wife. This had started as an extension of their interest in trees and as a way to educate and inspire others about them too. However in the end they ” learned the only way a garden could be naturally beautiful and still economically viable was to add rides.” Even that probably wasn’t enough and Bonfante took the decision to sell his supermarket chain and invest in the park. Eventually his dream opened to the public in 2001 as California’s only horticulture theme park! It has been added to continuously ever since and is now run as Gilroy Gardens, by the City of Gilroy, otherwise best known for claiming to be the garlic capital of the world.
25 of Axel’s specimens —including the park’s iconic Basket Tree as well as others like the Arch Tree and the Four-Legged Giant – still survive there. You can see them all individually here.
Where Krubsack and Erlandson led there are now a whole host of amazing arborsculptors -including Richard Reames, Chris Cattle, Dan Ladd, Peter Cook and Becky Northey – who are training, shaping and grafting trees to make furniture and structures. There are also a huge number of green building projects involving living trees, aeroponics [using tree/creeper roots] and even mycelium [the vegetative part of fungus] If you want to know more the best comprehensive but simple introduction is at science direct .
Maybe in a few years I’ll be writing about garden benches and gazebos which started growing during the great lockdown of 2020.