Yard Art: Bottle Trees Are Back

Rich in folklore, bottle trees offer a chance to recycle while adding beautiful color to your yard.
Bottle Tree Made From Christmas Tree

Bottle Tree Made From Christmas Tree

HGTV writer Felder Rushing is a longtime fan of the bottle tree including this one made from an old Christmas tree with a black-eyed Susan vine.

Photo by: Image courtesy of Felder Rushing

Image courtesy of Felder Rushing

HGTV writer Felder Rushing is a longtime fan of the bottle tree including this one made from an old Christmas tree with a black-eyed Susan vine.

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.

A Bottle Tree

A Bottle Tree

This bottle tree is made from reclaimed steel and used wine bottles, at Guard'n The Planet in Texas.

Photo by: Image courtesy of Dave Goodwin

Image courtesy of Dave Goodwin

This bottle tree is made from reclaimed steel and used wine bottles, at Guard'n The Planet in Texas.

“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.

Next Up

16 Cute Doormats You Need for Summer

Make a statement for the season ahead with these fun and fabulous doormats.

15 Ways to Upgrade Your Outdoor Decor for $30 or Less

Outdoor decorating season is finally upon us! To celebrate, we're sharing our favorite finds that won't break the bank.

Eco-Friendly Decorating Ideas

Smart, simple ways to make your decorating healthier for you and the environment.

Turn Old Windows Into a Gorgeous Garden Greenhouse

Not sure what to do with those salvaged windows? Try this charming DIY.

How to Make a Votive Candle Runway for Santa

Light the way for Santa by lining entry steps with glowing votives.

Design Budgeting 101: Outdoor Rooms

Professional designers know how to stretch a buck. Joan Grabel and Katie Z. Leavy share some of their best ideas for decorating an outdoor space for less.

How to Hang Christmas Wreaths on Windows

Hanging wreaths on windows is an easy way to boost your home's Christmas curb appeal — but how to hang them without causing damage can be problematic. Here are two easy ways to hang holiday wreaths on windows without damaging your home's exterior.

How to Clean an Outdoor Umbrella

To keep your outdoor umbrella looking its best, regular and routine cleaning is a must.

Make Carrot Decor Using Trash

Dress up your house for Easter by making these carrots made from newspaper and dyed twine.

Outdoor Easter Decorating Tips

Follow the advice of a longtime gardener for some easy Easter decor in your garden.

Go Shopping

Refresh your home with stylish products handpicked by HGTV editors.

Follow Us Everywhere

Join the party! Don't miss HGTV in your favorite social media feeds.