Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Like me, you've probably seen them in many gardening catalogs this spring, and at craft fairs and art shows in the area. They seem to be the "in" thing for the fashionable garden in the last few years: bottle trees. The concept is simple—a metal tree-like form, or even a dead tree itself is the base to hang colorful glass bottles from. The history of these garden ornaments may surprise you.
Though many catalogs would like you to believe that bottle trees are a new idea for the garden, they are in fact an ancient concept which has nothing to do with decoration for decoration's sake.
Much of what is published about bottle trees credits their invention to people in the Congo dating back to about 9 A.D. They believed that glass bottles would capable of capturing evil spirits. They brought this idea with them when they were brought to the Americas as slaves.
By hanging bottles on tree branches, the belief was that evil spirits would be lured into the bottles by night, and the light of the morning sun would then destroy them.
Garden author Felder Rushing has an excellent compilation of the history of bottle trees on his website: www.felderrushing.net. He argues that the concept of glass bottles harboring spirits can be traced back a lot farther than Congo in 9 A.D.
His assertion is that sometime around when glass bottles were first appearing in 1600 B.C. or so, the folklore connecting evil spirits and these bottles began to surface. One hypothesis is that the howling sound of wind blowing across the opening of a glass bottle is part of what fueled the idea that there must be spirits trapped inside.
Although so much of the history of bottle trees highlights the people from the Congo around 9 A.D., Felder Rushing points out that the idea of capturing evil spirits in bottles spread a lot farther than the Congo. It reached all over Africa and as far as Northern Europe.
Europeans evolved some of their own "bottle tree"-like concepts: witch balls, which were hollow balls with openings in the bottom to capture witches, and gazing balls, which were intended to repel witches from the garden. (And you thought gazing balls were just pretty!)
The idea of a bottle tree as such is attributed to African slaves brought to the United States. This is why for many years, they were found far and wide across the South. They have been called names such as "poor man's stained glass" or "garden earrings". Fortunately, there is no one right way to construct a bottle tree. As Felder Rushing explains in his article, "bottle trees are concepts—not recipes".
In its simplest form, a bottle tree is a bottle on a stick. The stick may be the end of the branches on a dead tree, branches stuck in the ground, metal rods made to look like a tree, or pretty much anything else you can think of.
Traditionally, blue bottles have been prized for bottle trees, as the color blue has been associated with the spirit world for centuries. The color blue has also been associated with calm and relaxed feelings. So if you believe in the spiritual side of bottle trees, you can feel calm and relaxed knowing that the blue bottles will keep any evil spirits from invading your home!
If you would like to try a bottle tree in your garden, but don't know where to start, I highly recommend checking out the pictures on Felder Rushing's website. (www.felderrushing.net) Click on 'bottle trees' to get your creative juices flowing. Note: you will probably find a lot of additional fun photos and articles on his website as well. If you ever have an opportunity to see Felder Rushing in person, he is an excellent speaker.