Bottle Trees: Southern Spirit Catchers with African Roots
The Origin of the Bottle Tree
Bottle trees have their roots in Congo culture. The practice was brought over by slaves who hung blue bottles from trees and huts as talismans to ward off evil spirits. It is believed that the spirits become mesmerized by the colors of the bottles in the sun. Once they enter the bottle, they can't find their way out, sort of like roach motels.
According to Wikipedia, "Glass 'bottle trees' orginated in Northern Africa during a period when superstitious people believed that a genii or imp could be captured in a glass bottle. Legend had it that empty glass bottles placed outside the home could "capture" roving (usually evil) spirits at night, and the spirit would be destroyed the next day in the sunshine. This practice was taken to Europe and North America by African slaves. While Europeans adapted them into hollow glass spheres known as "witch balls" the practice of hanging bottles in trees became widespread in the Southern states of North America, where they continue to be used today as colorful garden ornaments." Well, not exactly, as Africans don't believe in genies or imps...wrong culture Wiki...but you got the general idea.
Bottle trees have been featured as accessories in most of the prestigious flower show garden displays all over the world.
Additionally, glass bottles, which have long been placed in windows for color ("poor man's stained glass"), are also commonly used to line flower beds.
Bottle tree, photographed at the 36th Annual Ocean Springs- Elks Mardi Gras Parade, Mississippi
Southern Spirit Catchers with African Roots
It used to be that you could see bottle trees scattered all over the Southern landscape. Usually in the country or along the bayous of Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama, bottle trees are a colorful folk tradition with the purpose of warding off evil spirits, while at the same time recycling colorful bottles.
My mother and grandmother made bottle trees and proudly displayed them in their yards. Not surprisingly, I have taken up the practice, too. I find it to be a wonderful way of displaying all of the those cool vintage bottles I have collected over the years that tend to gather dust in boxes or on the windowsills. On a bottle tree, they now work for me by keeping evil spirits out of the house. The spirits become mesmerized with their dancing colors in the sun, and are drawn into the bottles only to be trapped for all eternity. At least, that's the way the story goes.
Are you ready to go green and contribute to a dying Southern tradition by making your own bottle tree? Then keep reading, because I am going to tell you how to make several variations of the Southern spirit bottle tree.
Have you ever seen a bottle tree?
Eudora Bottle Tree Photograph
Â© Eudora Welty Collection
Mississippi Department of Archives and History
This photograph by Eudora Welty, of a home in Simpson County, reflects a folk belief that "bottle-trees" - trees on whose limbs bottles have been placed - will trap evil spirits that might try to get in the house. Welty used bottle trees in her short story "Livvie," which was set near the Old Natchez Trace, a famous colonial "road" used by Indians, merchants, soldiers, and outlaws between Natchez and Nashville, Tennessee. This photograph, like many others taken by Welty during her work for the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, appears in One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression: A Snapshot Album (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996).
Bottle Trees: ...and the Whimsical Art of Garden Glass
Originally meant to trap bad spirits, bottle trees arrived in the U.S. with the African slave trade and first took root in the South. Now it's a popular art form, a national phenomenon that's showing up at garden shows, craft fairs and farmers markets. Garden writer and photographer Felder Rushing has encountered thousands of bottle trees and other glass garden art in his travels across America and around the world. In BOTTLE TREES he presents 60 of his favorites, from the backyards of Mississippi to the Chelsea Flower Show to the glass fantasies of Dale Chihuly. With humor and affection he tells the stories behind the photographs: the history and lore of bottle trees and glass sculpture, and the inspired people who make them.
Urban Tree Bling
The Birth of a New Bottle Tree
So we have this awesome peach tree that unfortunately had been giving it the good fight, half of its branches are dead but even so she produces a lot of peaches...at least she did last year. She kept us up to our necks in peaches - they were delicious and I have become an expert peach cobbler maker. I went out and pruned her and cut off a bunch of those branches, but as I was doing so, I thought maybe she would like to be a bottle tree. The bottles could decorate her dead branches and she would be beautiful!
This year my son has taken a liking to Mountain Dew. As a result, I started saving the bottles so that I can make our peach tree an all green, Mountain Dew bottle tree! Now, my thinking is that green is the color of money, and though they say money doesn't grow on trees, if I fill in all those dead branches eventually, each bottle having a cash in value....well, no... they're right, money doesn't grow on trees. But, these bottles sure make my poor peach tree look and feel better. She's looking greener already. And me too. No, I'm not looking greener...there's just something so comforting about bottle trees that connects me to home on the Gulf coast.
I've got a long ways to go but each week I'm adding more bottles. Eventually, it will be perfect.
Doing the Dew, Bottle Tree-Style!Click thumbnail to view full-size
How to Make a Spirit Bottle Tree
Choose a strong tree or stump with branches. Crepe myrtles and cedars trees are traditionally used, although pretty much any kind of tree will work. Trim all of the foliage off of the tree and cut the branches down until you have as many bare branches as you have bottles. Then you simply slide the bottles onto the branches.
A variation of this is to take a fallen branch and prune it the same fashion. Then, you have a portable tree. Plant it outside of your home, near the entrance or in the garden or anywhere you want in your yard and slip your bottles onto the branches.
Here's a tip: If you put a little oil on the bottle necks, the spirits will slip easily into the bottles and become trapped that much quicker.
Did you know?
If you listen closely, you can hear the moans of the trapped spirits in the bottles when the wind blows.
Beautiful Bottle Tree Photos
I used to have a module of Flickr Photos of some very nice bottle trees...then, they took them down due to copyright reasons and instead put a link to the bottle trees group. So, if you want to see some photos of bottle trees, go to Flickr and type in bottle trees and you will find a lot of them.
Because I wanted this to be an image rich lens (as all of my lenses are, but this one especially so...you can only talk so much about something so beautiful) I went on another internet search and I found the mother lode. OMG! You have got to see this site called Bottle Trees. This guy has so many fantastic photos of bottle trees that you have to go and see them. I borrowed a photo from his site, I hope he doesn't mind as I am giving credit and links and many, many cudos. This photo is just a teaser. I am serious, go and check out Bottle Trees now!
This photo is of bottle trees in Shangri La Botanic Garden, Orange Texas (photographs courtesy of Greg Grant).
Green Glass Beer Bottle Christmas Tree
Bottle Tree - Adansonia aka Baobab
Now this is a bottle tree, but not the kind this article is about. Still, how could I not include it? OMG it is phenomenal! And apparently you can eat the leaves in a soup! In fact, the Australian Aborigines have multiple uses for these magnificent trees, from eating the leaves, to using parts of it medicinally, as fiber and dye, and carving ornaments from the fruits and wearing them as body adornments.
Some folks in South Africa built a pub inside a hollow one called "The Big Baobab Pub", and there was even one large enough to be used as a prison in Australia. Now THAT's got to be a big tree.
According to Wikipedia, six species of this tree are native to Madagascar, one is native to mainland Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, some are in India and one to Australia. The mainland African species also occurs on Madagascar, but it is not a native of that island.
Photo 2007 by Bernard Gagnon
The Bottle Tree Ranch: Amazing Folk Art on Route 66
One of the great folk art sites in America can be found along Route 66 near Barstow, California. Elmer Long's Bottle Tree Ranch is a sight to behold: over 400 man-made trees created from old glass bottles and other antiques. Take a one-minute tour in this installment of Off The Beaten Path.
How to Make a Bottle Tree Stump
Here is yet another way to make a bottle tree using a tree stump. Gather your bottles together and find a tree stump you like that sits well on end. Take some long nails and drive them into the stump at equal distance from each other, staggering the rows so the bottles don't rub against each other. Slip the bottles onto the nails and there you have it!
Want more detailed instructions? Alrighty then...your wish is my command!
Step One: Find Your Stump and Gather Supplies
This is the first step...you have to have a tree stump in order to make it a bottle tree stump. So, take a cruise around the local countryside, peruse your neighborhood for someone who may have recently cut down a tree, or check out your own backyard. One of my favorite ways to find tree stumps and limbs for other projects is right after a nasty storm. Where I live, if we have a storm, invariably there will be fallen limbs and trees all around. Grab your saw and get cutting!
Once you have your stump, you will need a drill to drill holes into it, nails or screws, and hammer, and a variety of bottles.
Step Two: Decide what bottles to use
You will need to know which bottles you will use so that you know how long of nails or screws you need, and how far to drive them into the stump. This was a relatively small stump I wanted to place on my picnic table (which, by the way, if you have kids and especially rambunctious boys, not a good place to keep your bottle tree). It looked good for a day, though...then slowly, one my one my bottles started to disappear and no one seemed to know what was happening to them!
I had collected a variety of small bottles for awhile and thought they would be perfect for this stump. I wanted an all green bottle tree, but I didn't have quite enough little green bottles. No matter, there is no rule that says you have to fill the entire stump, much less fill it with the same color bottles.
Step Three: Drive the Nails Into the Stump
This may seem to be an easy task, but for it to come out looking right it is a little tricky. First, you have to drive in your nails at an angle. I actually used screws because I couldn't locate my long nails anywhere (Hmm, could it be that rambunctious, yet creative little tool thief called my son again?)
The second thing to consider is staggering your nails or screws so that they are not all lined up in a row and touching each other. Glass is glass after all, and vintage glass is even more fragile, so make sure your nails are staggered and far enough apart to provide the kind of coverage you want and are not touching each other.
Step Four: Slip Your Bottles Onto the Nails or Screws
Now that you have your stump ready with the nails or screws at a slight upward angle so they won't fall offf, start slipping on your bottles carefully. At this point, you may have to do some adjusting, such as take that drill and screw those screws in a little farther or out a little more so that the bottles will not fall off easily. Oh yeah, i forgot to mention to make sure that the head of the nails or screws you will be using are not larger than the opening of the bottles. Did that once, and felt pretty stupid.
If you look closely at this photo, you will see where some adjusting is needed. Some of the screws were not quite at the right angle, and the spacing needed to be adjusted.
Step Five: Finish Adjusting and Adding Bottles
Step Five: Finish Adjusting and Adding Bottles
Now all you have to do is play around with it for while until you get everything the way you want it to look. I mentioned earlier that I had some screws that needed adjusting and I needed to adjust some of the spacing. I also mentioned I wanted just green bottles; but alas, I had to surrender and use some of my little brown and clear bottles as well. Still turned out pretty cool though, don'tcha think?
And that lone screw sitting there without a bottle on the left? Well, a little imp ran off with that bottle.
Links about Bottle Trees
- The Bottle tree
The Bottle Tree microbrewery has some great photos of bottle trees.
- Southern Bottle Trees, Lawn & Garden Decorations & Artwork ...
Are you looking for a unique way to decorate your lawn or garden? If so, you have come to the right place! We specialize in African inspired southern bottle ...
Indoor or Outdoor Southern Bottle Trees by TheBottleTreeMan.
- Southern Bottle tree - Don Drane
The idea of a bottle tree had bounced around in my head since I heard horticulturist Felder Rushing talking about them on his radio program one Saturday. ...
- Bottle trees - Mississippi Delta - Southern lifestyles - Dudley ...
Slaves from the Congo in Africa brought the idea of the traditional bottle trees -- live trees with colored bottles on the ends of branches -- into this ...
- Glass Bottle Trees | Southern Bottle Trees bring color to your ...
Bottle trees historically protected homes from evil spirits by trapping spirits inside the bottle, where they could do no harm. The bottle tree has seen new ...
- Tree bling, Southern style - The Denver Post
Cindy Norwood collects blue bottles to create bottle trees in her yard. ... The nearly 20 bottle trees displayed in beds of iris, pastel pink native azaleas ...
- Trash to Treasure: ...and so the Bottle Tree has been planted!
I read someone's thread where they were going to put clear Christmas lights on there bottle tree. Are you planning to light it some way for night viewing? ...
Great Bottle Tree Stuff on Amazon
Non one said a bottle tree has to be outside, or even on a tree anymore! Use this rack to dry your empties for the recycling bin, or fill it completely for a fun conversation piece. Holds 18 Bottles
Handcrafted SOUTHERN Bottle Tree from Mississippi!
Built in a FAMILY-OWNED welding shop from hot rolled steel. Will last for years! NO ASSEMBLY REQUIRED!
Stands 62" when installed 18" in the ground. The tree displays 25 bottles. What's not to like about this down home southern fried tradition?!
© 2008 Denise M Alvarado