How did bottle trees become a tradition in the South? Here is a condensed history lesson!
Start Saving Your Bottles
Traditionally, bottle trees are made up of bottles saved over the course of years. Any type of bottle can be used, but I think it’s most common to see wine and/or beer bottles used – milk bottles would also work well but may be challenging to come by. If you are worried it would take too long to accumulate enough bottles to make your tree, ask friends to start saving bottles for you.
There seems to be some conflicting dates and origins of when bottle trees came about. From what I have read it seems glass began to be made on purpose in 3500 B.C. in northern Africa, then hollow glass bottles began appearing around 1600 B.C. in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Clear glass was invented in Alexandria around 100 A.D.
The folk art tradition of making bottle trees is believed to have begun in the ninth century. But Felder Rushing who has done extensive research on the subject believes that bottle trees originated much earlier and further North than the Congo area of Africa. He also notes that the superstitions surrounding them were embraced by most ancient cultures, including European.
What we do know is eventually they were imported to the Americas by African slaves and other superstitious folks. African slaves on Southern plantations began placing bottles on trees using whatever resources were available. There were different variations in the Carribean as well. The variations we see today, are most likely a Creole invention. While the practice of hanging bottles in trees became widespread in the SOUTH, it spread to the North inland into Appalachia and bottle trees can be found all over the world.
The bottles, which can be any color, but COBALT BLUE is the most preferred because in the Hoodoo folk-magic tradition. The elemental blues of water and sky place the bottle tree at a crossroads between heaven and earth, and therefore between the living and the dead.
The bottles are placed upside down with the neck facing the trunk, relax the branches don’t all have to be covered in bottles to “work.” The belief was that by hanging the bottles in a tree, evil spirits would find their way into the bottles and become stuck. Since they wouldn’t be able to find their way back out again, they would remain in the bottle until morning and then the morning sun would destroy the spirits.
Another variation on the tradition is the bottles were corked in the morning and thrown away to get rid of the evil spirits. Bottle trees are not only associated with warding off spirits, but they are also with good luck, rain and trees blooming.
Did You Hear Something?
It’s been said that if you pass by and the wind blows the sound you hear is thought to be that of the spirits trapped insides the bottle.
Poor Man’s Stained Glass
Today you may hear the bottle tree referred to as the “poor man’s stained glass” or “garden earrings.” They are fantastic pieces of folk-art that do have a story but can also just be added to add a touch of playfulness and art to your garden.
If you are looking to make your own bottle tree, you can use an old tree branch and stick the bottles onto the branches or you could take a center rod or tree trunk and attach nails or rods. Also, you can create a hanging bottle tree by hanging the bottles from branches. And if you don’t want to make yourself, find a local folk artist and buy a bottle tree already made.
The Bottle Tree
While I am no means an expert on the history of bottle trees, it’s been really fascinating to scratch the surface on the traditions and roots. I would encourage everyone to go to your local library and check out what resources they have that will help you dig even deeper into the story of this tree!
The Farmers Almanac: https://www.almanac.com/news/gardening-news/bottle-trees-mystical-color-garden
Wide Open Country: https://www.wideopencountry.com/bottle-trees-uniquely-southern-tradition/
Felder Rushing: https://www.felderrushing.net/BottleTreeImagess.htm
Smithsonian Gardens: https://smithsoniangardens.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/the-american-bottle-tree/