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Bonfante Gardens

Listen to Ketzel's report on Bonfante Gardens Listen to Ketzel's report on a day trip to Bonfante Gardens in Gilroy, CA. (garlic capital of the world!). It's the first non-profit, horticultural theme park in the USA, but the DoD wonders whether kids will get the point.

Michael and Ketzel
The Doyenne of Dirt shares a bench with the Big Man On Campus, Michael Bonfante

I'll leave it to you to visit the Bonfante Gardens Theme Park Web site and read the expected and appropriate hype. After all, the place is masterfully executed, and its creator is a Disneyesque dreamer. My question is this: The place is a non-profit institution with a mission to educate, right? So, what are the chances that kids zoning out at an amusement park will take any notice of the (incidentally, unlabeled) trees?

Topiary Bear
This topiary bear comes with a growling audio loop. Shoot me, but I think he's adorable.
Artichoke Cups
Cheap thrills for the Under-3 Set: slowly moving artichokes beneath a native evergreen oak.

There's no question that the theme park is serious about trees. It's loaded with at least 10,000 fair to fabulous specimens, including Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia), Tristania laurina (a eucalyptus relative), evergreen dogwoods (Cornus omeiense) and some astonishingly gorgeous, old olive trees (Olea europaea).

Garlic Whirl and Olive
Well, Mom, the Garlic Whirl was O.K., but what really blew my mind were the big olive trees!
Quicksilver Mine Coaster
Well, Dad, I almost lost it on the Quicksilver Mine Coaster, but the sight of all that birch and cedar really calmed me down!

Granted, it's a bit early to judge; fabulous educational outreach programs could be in the works (labeling trees would be a good start). Too bad Bonfante's got an admitted aversion to arboretums, they could have taught him a thing or two ("it's the last place kids want to go"). In the meantime, for sheer wonder, few kids will forget the Circus Trees of the late Axel Erlandson, a brilliant master of a lost horticultural art.

Circus Tree
The simplest of the Circus Trees: two sycamores grafted together and grown into one.
Circus Tree
The oldest of the Circus Trees: the Four-Legged Giant, which dates from the 1920's.

It was these fantastical creations that opened Michael Bonfante's eyes to trees. And look where that led, right? So admittedly, if the theme park manages to score us even a few more tree nerds, it'd be worth the price of admission -- which, incidentally, is $26.95

Here's a few links on the subject of Bonfante Gardens:
Bonfante Gardens Homepage

• A short history of Axel Erlandson and his 1940's roadside attraction, the Tree Circus, can be seen at the Web site of arbor sculptor Richard Charles Reames, Arborsmith Studios.

Mark Primack is a Santa Cruz landscape architect who, in the 1970's, championed the cause of the then-deteriorating Tree Circus ("I was struggling to figure out how to keep these trees alive. Now I've become the man who saved the trees!"). Primack wrote a fascinating piece on pleaching -- one of the techniques used by Erlandson to create his bizarre and wonderful tree sculptures -- which is posted at the Rainforest Information Center Web site.

Theme park photos by K. Levine

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Copyright © 2003 National Public Radio, Washington, D.C.