The Magic of Bottle Trees

Bottle trees, iconic symbols of the South, are enjoying a well-deserved renaissance. The modern revival of bottle trees – sometimes called spirit trees, poor man’s stained glass or garden earrings – is all about details that shimmer in sunshine. Color and fun are in; formality is out. A quick internet search will uncover hundreds of interesting images. 

Art historian Robert Farris Thompson traces the story of bottle trees back to the African Congo, but garden author and radio host, Felder Rushing, chased the story even further back in time. On his website FelderRushing.net – a treasure trove of information – he writes: 

“… I find bottle trees and their lore go back much further in time and originate farther north. And that the superstitions surrounding them were embraced by most ancient cultures, including European … the bottle imp/bad spirit thing was carried down through sub-Saharan Africa and up into Eastern Europe, and eventually imported into the Americas by African slaves.” 

For thousands of years, superstition has held that empty glass bottles placed outside a home captures roving spirits at night. Unable to escape the bottle’s throat, those malevolent spirits are destroyed the next day when they become mesmerized by the play of sunlight through the colorful glass and become trapped inside the bottles. A passing breeze releases an eerie whistling sound created by wind skimming over the bottles’ noses; the eerie noise is said to be the moans of those ensnared spirits. 

Another legend has it that the wisest people periodically removed the bottles from their trees, plugged them with cork and set them adrift in the river – sending evil spirits far away. 

The Mississippi writer Eudora Welty worked for the WPA during the 1930s depression and photographed many bottle trees across her native state. She later incorporated them into her story “Livvie”: 

“Coming around up the path from the deep cut of the Natchez Trace below was a line of bare crape-myrtle trees with every branch of them ending in a colored bottle, green or blue. There was no word that fell from Solomon’s lips to say what they were for, but Livvie knew that there could be a spell put in trees, and she was familiar from the time she was born with the way bottle trees kept evil spirits from coming into the house – by luring them inside the colored bottles, where they cannot get out again.” 

Locally, you can buy a bottle tree at Keepsakes, the gift shop in Brookgreen Gardens, but you can also fashion your own from dead trees or big limbs tied together (crape myrtles and cedars have the best natural forms), wooden posts with large nails, rebar rods stuck in the ground or bottles stuck on the tines of an upended pitch fork. Plant your tree where it gets sunlight for at least a few magical minutes each day. And dress it up with all the colors you can find. The bottles don’t have to be blue! 

Kimberly Duncan