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Bottle Trees: Southern Spirit Catchers with African Roots

Updated on June 17, 2018
DeniseAlvarado profile image

It's just me, clicking the keys, burning hi-octane conjure and working wonders at the old dirt track crossroads in AZ.

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

Bottle tree, photographed at the 36th Annual Ocean Springs- Elks Mardi Gras Parade, Mississippi
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?

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Livvie, by Eudora Welty
Livvie, by Eudora Welty

Eudora Bottle Tree Photograph

© 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 • Eudora Welty
Bottle Trees • Eudora Welty

Bottle Trees: ...and the Whimsical Art of Garden Glass

Bottle Trees: ...and the Whimsical Art of Garden Glass
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

There are many ways people are adapting this African tradition in urban America.I saw one garden where each piece of cobalt blue glass, including saucers and plates are staked into the ground throughout the garden.
There are many ways people are adapting this African tradition in urban America.I saw one garden where each piece of cobalt blue glass, including saucers and plates are staked into the ground throughout the garden.

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

Green Glass Beer Bottle Christmas Tree
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.

Bottle Tree stump. Photo copyright  Denise Alvarado, all rights reserved.
Bottle Tree stump. Photo copyright Denise Alvarado, all rights reserved.

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.

Bottle Tree Stump. Photo copyright Denise Alvarado, all rights reserved.
Bottle Tree Stump. Photo copyright Denise Alvarado, all rights reserved.

Step Two: Decide what bottles to use

Photo copyright Denise Alvarado, all rights reserved.
Photo copyright Denise Alvarado, all rights reserved.


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

Bottle Tree Stump. Photo copyright Denise Alvarado, all rights reserved worldwide.
Bottle Tree Stump. Photo copyright Denise Alvarado, all rights reserved worldwide.


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.

Great Bottle Tree Stuff on Amazon

Oenophilia Porcupine Bottle Tree - 18 Bottle
Oenophilia Porcupine Bottle Tree - 18 Bottle

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

 
The Big Daddy Bottle Tree
The Big Daddy Bottle Tree

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?!

 
Become an insider
Become an insider | Source

© 2008 Denise M Alvarado

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    • DeniseAlvarado profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise M Alvarado 

      4 years ago from Southwest

      Fixing to update this page about bottle trees, I have a new bottle tree to show y'all:)

    • profile image

      nonya222 

      5 years ago

      I live in Florida and love the South but have never seen these which is so sad as they are beautiful. I am adding one or two or maybe 3 to my garden.

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 

      5 years ago from Canada

      I live in Canada and have never seen a bottle tree (or heard of one). I enjoyed every word of your article on them. What a wonderful tradition for warding off evil spirits.

    • sheriangell profile image

      sheriangell 

      6 years ago

      I love these. Every time I see one, I always wondered what their history was. Thanks for providing that!

    • profile image

      Miska29 

      6 years ago

      How wounderful... :)

    • ResearchAddict profile image

      ResearchAddict 

      6 years ago

      This is an awesome lens. I have seen bottle trees and would like to make on just for fun!

    • Thrinsdream profile image

      Thrinsdream 

      6 years ago

      Fantastic, I went to the bottle tree site you recommended and I am in awe, it's beautiful. Thank you for introducing me to something I never knew about before, I love it! With thanks and appreciation. Cathi x

    • LewesDE profile image

      LewesDE 

      6 years ago

      Love this lens!

    • Country-Sunshine profile image

      Country Sunshine 

      6 years ago from Texas

      I've never heard of these, but I really like them! I'm going to have to create a few of these for my house!

    • profile image

      Edutopia 

      6 years ago

      At my last apartment my neighbors at the corner of the street had a rather large tree that they've turned into a bottle tree using only Sky Vodka bottles. Now I know what they were trying to do!

    • profile image

      WhitePineLane 

      6 years ago

      Awesome lens! I had never heard of a bottle tree, but the concept is fascinating! I love your idea of using antique bottles too. Also, thanks for the spell! I might need to use that on someone I know.... ;-)

    • Pam Irie profile image

      Pam Irie 

      6 years ago from Land of Aloha

      I've always been fascinated with the concept of bottle trees.

    • vkumar05 profile image

      vkumar05 

      6 years ago

      Very innovative Lens. Great Work.

    • awestricken1 profile image

      Ken Parker 

      6 years ago from Tacoma, Wa

      I have the bottles now I just need a tree to put them on.

    • lesliesinclair profile image

      lesliesinclair 

      6 years ago

      Those blue bottles are stunning, and such an easy thing to use to decorate a yard.

    • GeorgeneMBramlage profile image

      Georgene Moizuk Bramlage 

      6 years ago from southwestern Virginia

      What a wonderful lens! Great photos, interesting information and attention to detailed instructions. Thanks so much for sharing your hard work...Cercis

    • DreamingBoomer profile image

      Karen Kay 

      6 years ago from Jackson, MS

      Thanks so much for giving bottle trees a place here on Squidoo. They are a lovely part of our southern culture. I still see them around a good bit in Jackson, MS. I guess they aren't really dying here yet. Thanks also for spotlighting Felder Rushing's site. He's a bit of a local hero around here! Blessed!

    • profile image

      kimmanleyort 

      7 years ago

      I've always loved bottle trees and learned something new here about them. Fascinating to learn of the their history. Blessed by a Squid Angel.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      7 years ago

      I enjoyed your lense. It is wonderful to learn about the traditions of people, this is so interesting. Thank you.N T T

    • dahlia369 profile image

      dahlia369 

      7 years ago

      Very interesting and fun, great images. Nicely done & great resource. ***Angel blessed*** during my epic Back to School Bus Trip quest :)

    • WhiteOak50 profile image

      WhiteOak50 

      7 years ago

      After finally catching up with the Angel School Bus, I am fluttering around Legends & Folklore-ville to drop off some Blessings. Just wanted you to know I am here because your page caught my attention. Leaving you with a *Blessing* for doing such a great job on this page.

    • profile image

      reasonablerobby 

      7 years ago

      We don't have anything like this in the UK, what a great idea.

    • profile image

      jamesnodturft 

      7 years ago

      Very interesting and the pictures of trees are stunning.

    • profile image

      LensSeller 

      7 years ago

      Some very interesting ideas - and works of art!

    • Philippians468 profile image

      Philippians468 

      7 years ago

      what an excellent way to recycle old bottles! thank you for sharing this refreshing lens! cheers

    • Anahid LM profile image

      Anahid LM 

      7 years ago

      Hi It is interesting I like the blue bottles on trees, and the Christmas bottle tree. Great work. Happy Easter to you. Anna

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 

      7 years ago from Colorado

      Very interesting! Love that Christmas tree with the green bottles.

    • ayngel boshemia profile image

      Ayngel Overson 

      7 years ago from Crestone, Co

      Lovely... and something to do with all of the antique bottles my kids and I bring home from treasure hunts!!! Happy Experts Day!!!

    • garyrh1 profile image

      garyrh1 

      7 years ago

      Hah! Those look pretty neat.

    • profile image

      Pete Schultz 

      7 years ago

      A new way to dispose of bottles and ward off evil....thanks, very interesting.

    • ChrisDay LM profile image

      ChrisDay LM 

      7 years ago

      Well done on that Purple Star

    • profile image

      tealmermaid 

      7 years ago

      Interesting lens idea. Never heard of these before.

    • Guitar-Teacher profile image

      Guitar-Teacher 

      7 years ago

      Hehe, these look pretty cool. No need to water these trees, maybe they would even survive at my place :-)Tom @

    • turner-bob profile image

      turner-bob 

      7 years ago

      Interesting!

    • profile image

      most12 

      7 years ago

      dd

    • profile image

      most12 

      7 years ago

      good ider

    • profile image

      most12 

      7 years ago

      bottle cutter I keep finding cool wine bottles and adding to my bottle collection.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      7 years ago

      Avandia LawsuitAccutane LawsuitWellbutrin LawsuitFosamax LawsuitPaxil LawsuitAb Circle Pro

    • profile image

      ShamanicShift 

      8 years ago

      Awesome! I am just about to feature this lens on my new evil-spirits lens (about many perspectives and traditions, loosely as well as directly relating to the topic).

    • profile image

      Obscure_Treasures 

      8 years ago

      I want to leave my congratulations to this superb lens. This is one of the best lenses in squidoo that I have ever seen.

    • Mickie Gee profile image

      Mickie Goad 

      8 years ago

      My husband has been promising to make me a bottle tree for two years, now. Well, needless to say the keyword here is "promising". Meanwhile, I keep finding cool wine bottles and adding to my bottle collection.

    • lasertek lm profile image

      lasertek lm 

      8 years ago

      When I read the title, I thought the lens is about the bottle tree. A tree whose trunk is bottle-shaped. To my surprise, it is literally a tree with bottles hanging. This is really a great lens you know.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      8 years ago

      What a unique lens! Congratulkations on being nominated for a Giant Squid Award and SquidAngel Blessings for you.

    • paperfacets profile image

      Sherry Venegas 

      8 years ago from La Verne, CA

      Like this one.

    • profile image

      ulla_hennig 

      8 years ago

      I never heard of that tradition - thanks for sharing! I love the blue bottles on the trees, they really look great!

    • clouda9 lm profile image

      clouda9 lm 

      8 years ago

      This was such an enjoyable read - loved the Bottle Trees website too. I actually feel inspired to make my own. Congrats on your 2009 Giant Squid Awards nomination.

    • Ramkitten2000 profile image

      Deb Kingsbury 

      8 years ago from Flagstaff, Arizona

      I'd never heard of this tradition before. How neat! Love that photo of the row of bottle trees along the pathway.

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 

      8 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      I love to see the Bottle Trees at Edisto in South Carolina. This is a wonderful lens with great photos. Lensrolling to my lens about the book Reflections Of A Mississippi Magnolia. Also I am leaving you with a Squid Angel Blessing.

    • monarch13 profile image

      monarch13 

      8 years ago

      Very cool

    • DeniseAlvarado profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise M Alvarado 

      9 years ago from Southwest

      [in reply to rms] Thanks much!

    • aka-rms profile image

      Robin S 

      9 years ago from USA

      Beautifully crafted lens about a very interesting topic!

    • profile image

      eventyr 

      9 years ago

      I love this tradition! Maybe I should start one in Norway!

    • profile image

      Joan4 

      9 years ago

      I actually saw my first bottle tree this summer - and have lived in the south all my life! I really enjoyed reading the origin of this unusual practice. Blessed by a joyful SquidAngel.

    • DeniseAlvarado profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise M Alvarado 

      9 years ago from Southwest

      Thank you!

    • jimmielanley profile image

      Jimmie Quick 

      9 years ago from Memphis, TN, USA

      I am not familiar with this animistic superstition although I grew up in the South. Your lens is well crafted.You're officially blessed!

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      9 years ago

      There's still some old bottle trees scattered about in East Texas. Especially off the main roads on the old blacktops. Often times it'll be a cedar post in the yard with the limbs cut back and the bottles set on the end. I have been familiar with them since I was a kid...almost 50 years ago. Also to be found here are the broken dishes on top of gravesites. Sea shells too but they are harder to find/get for obvious reasons.I may start building some and see how they go...I own an antique/junk store.

    • Demaw profile image

      Demaw 

      9 years ago

      I place old style perfume bottles on twigs, sort of like the picture of the portable bottle tree. I also place twigs decorated with small bottles in the pots with my indoor plants as decoration. 5 star lens and very original.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      9 years ago

      I have known of these trees for many years and had my own when I lived in the south. I am a born and bread Southern Girl, but have been living in Indiana for about 7 years now. This has inspired me to start another here in my yard and see what all these yankees have to say! ;-) I must also point out that the bottle tree in part 2 (above) is most authentic. They should be hung from the branches close enough for them to touch each other like wind chimes, neck up, by a string or such, not stuck on them. If the bottle is upside down or tipped over, the spirits can escape, and if the neck is not open, you won't be able to hear the spirits moan......

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      9 years ago

      I have had my bottle tree for years, Cool things happen when the sun hits. Some of them are captured in photo, I look for other's trees and I see few. None here in Tennessee, that I have seen. Some in South Carolina, I saw none in Louisiana, Is the tradidtion as gone as it seems?

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      9 years ago

      Love it.

    • Sensitive Fern profile image

      Sensitive Fern 

      10 years ago

      These are so cool, especially in person. They remind me of Chihuli installations.

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