“A bottle tree?” Visitors ask when they spot the rebar creation in my flowerbed.
I explain that people have been creating these “trees” in Southern states for hundreds of years.
Appalachian folklore says empty glass bottles placed outside near the home can capture roving (usually evil) spirits at night.
Sunlight the next day then destroys the spirit inside or the bottles can be corked then thrown into the river to wash away the evil spirits.
Some hold that African slaves carried the bottle tree tradition to Europe and North America in the 17th century when the slave trade began. Eudora Welty used this idea in her short story about a slave named Livvie.
She 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.
Felder Rushing, a southern gardener, believes the tradition goes back much further in history to ancient Egypt. You can read his account here.
Originally, bottles were hung on the bare limbs of Crape Myrtles, a tradition thought to be connected to the myrtle tree’s significance to slaves in the Bible. The crepe myrtle tree appears as a reoccurring image representing freedom and escape from slavery in the Old Testament.
An interesting side note here is that Victorians adapted the bottle tree idea into hollow witch’s balls they placed inside their homes.
Bottle trees also appear in Hoodoo folk magic. Practitioners believe spirits remain among the living for generations and, when captured in the bottles, provide protective powers. Hoodoo bottle trees use only blue bottles to attract ancestral spirits.
The most prized bottle trees today are those with milk-of-magnesia bottles. Since those bottles aren’t produced anymore and the ones you find in flea markets and antique shops are pricey, most folks settle for blue wine bottles.
Remember the Southern blue porch ceilings. It’s something about the color blue and its ability to discourage the “haints” that attracts us southerners.
Whether you believe all the hocus pocus folklore or not, you will find bottle trees in gardens and yards throughout the United States. If an actual tree isn’t available, you can find numerous styles of iron trees at garden shows and nursery showrooms.
I love my bottle tree! It blooms all year and brightens my garden. And just maybe, it helps keep the haints away.
Want to learn more about bottle trees? Check out these sites:
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