Dating as far back as the 16th century, tree shaping has been hinted at in paintings and literature but it was not until the advent of Axel Erlandson, the father of modern tree training, that the art form truly flourished. As a young man, Erlandson was inspired by the sight of two conjoined branches in a hedgerow on his property. As a result, he began experimenting, designing and training over 70 different trees into various stunning horticultural and architectural specimens. He then went on to open a roadside exhibition in Scotts Valley, California in 1947, debuting his curiosities in an aptly named ‘Tree Circus’.
What Erlandson had observed and used to great effect, was a natural form of grafting known as inosculation. Rather ordinary, the phenomenon occurs when trunks, roots or branches in close proximity gradually fuse together; it can arise within a single tree or neighboring trees of same or different species. Over time, as the limbs grow, they exert pressure similar to the friction between two palms rubbed against each other. This causes the outer bark to slough off, exposing the inner tissue or cambium and allows the vasculature of both trees to intermingle; in essence, joining their lifeblood.
Besides grafting, tree shaping also employs pruning, bending, weaving and bracing to create the dramatic loops, twists and knots evocative of the form. Many of the techniques are borrowed from related horticultural practices such as bonsai, espalier and topiary.