Yard Art: Bottle Trees Are Back
“Then 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.” – Eudora Welty, “Livvie”
Bottle trees once cast so much kaleidoscopic light across yards on back country lanes throughout the rural Southeast that they were nicknamed the “poor man’s stained glass.”
Now, as part of the recycling movement and rising popularity of folk art, the easy-to-assemble yard ornaments are making a comeback. Most garden-supply stores offer kits, and high-end landscapers commission artists to reinterpret the tradition, which dates back centuries and revolves around the belief that the bottles capture evil spirits and protect the home.
“For years I subscribed to the common thread of lore that dates the origin of bottle trees to the Congo area of Africa in the 9th century A.D.,” says HGTV writer Felder Rushing, who just published Bottle Trees and Other Whimsical Glass Art for the Garden. “After extensive research, I find that bottle trees and their lore go back much farther in time…and that the superstitions surrounding them were embraced by most ancient cultures, including European….Clear glass was invented in Alexandria around 100 A.D. Soon around then, tales began to circulate that spirits could live in bottles—probably from when people heard sounds caused by wind blowing over bottle openings.”
In the United States, though, the bottle-tree practice was preserved primarily by slaves and their descendants.
“I always wanted one as a child, but my parents thought they looked too country, too tacky and too much a violation of the homeowners' association,” says Mary Elizabeth Phillips, a North Carolina native who operates Guard’n the Planet, a gallery for sustainable art and homestead education near Fort Worth, Texas. “Now they’re an increasingly desirable, practical and beautiful way to lend sparkle and dashes of year-round color to a garden.”
To construct a bottle tree, first choose your trunk, and make certain it can stand on its own. Dead trees are commonly used, and crape myrtles and cedars are the natural favorites for their gnarled forms and sturdiness. Increasingly, though, gardeners opt for artificial materials—large dowels with nails protruding as “branches,” rebar or metal materials for welding, or even a simple pitchfork offering its tines for limbs.
“I worry that the ends of most live tree branches might droop under the weight of bottles so that the bottles fall off, which may explain why my distant and dreamy memory of North Carolina bottle trees is of bottles perched on the ends of dead trees,” says Phillips, whose bottle trees are made from reclaimed steel. “I don’t, however, think bottles will damage living trees, other than perhaps accumulate moisture inside them and create conditions favorable for disease. That should be monitored.”
Richard George, a master gardener in Macon, Georgia, commissioned a “found object” bottle tree from artist Zoë Alexandra, who scavenged from a junkyard to decorate his grounds, which emphasize whimsy and storytelling. "There's a ‘repurposing’ of found objects for creative expression that I find very satisfying,” Alexandra says, “and this metal is always twisted, broken and bent, which emulates trees.”
Backyard artisans advise securing the bottles at an angle, at least six inches apart to keep from clanging against each other in a stiff breeze. Many gardening vendors sell vessels specifically for this purpose, primarily in cobalt, for its coastal associations with “haint blue,” used as a talisman in other contexts against evil. (Rushing has playfully dubbed the bottles Silica transparencii, for "clear glass," and describes a "cultivar" as 'Milk of Magnesia' blue.)
“Another reason I like blue bottles,” adds Phillips, “is that they echo the idea of sky and water, and offset the ‘hot’ colors in my Texas garden. Of course, I also enjoy the wine and sake that comes in those colors, so there’s that added bonus of recycling.”
When the morning sun strikes the bottles, goes the legend, the evil spirits evaporate, along with any residual, friendlier libations.