By Carey Crawford | Photography by Carey Crawford and Mary Ann DeSantis
Bottle trees are more than decorative yard art – they represent not only a Southern tradition, but also a legend that goes back thousands of years.
All around the South, it’s not unusual to see collections of colorful bottles arranged on a tree, either hanging upside down by strings or placed over upward turned branches. The various-shaped bottles may be colored green, blue, and possibly amber.
During my childhood in rural north Mississippi, I was aware that some folks had bottle trees, but I never thought they were anything more than a quirky yard decoration. My grandmother would save glass food jars and have me spray paint them different colors so we could make our own bottle trees. We didn’t have any of the traditional colored bottles, so we made do with what we had. We cut down a good sized tree branch and affixed it in an upright position so that it resembled a small tree. Then we placed the painted food jars upside down over the branches. Although it was quite an attractive addition to the lawn, I don’t remember asking why we did it.
The bottle tree is a peculiarity of Southern culture that’s been around for generations. The origin of the bottle tree supposedly goes all the way back to 1600 B.C. in Africa, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, a historical region that corresponds with today’s Iraq and northern Saudi Arabia.
Glass bottles came into existence around that time and were regularly used as practical vessels. The belief soon evolved that spirits could find their way into bottles and become trapped. Speculation ensued that spirits would enter the bottles at night, become trapped, and would be extinguished by sunlight as the day dawned. Thus, the practice of hanging glass bottles from trees to prevent evil spirits from causing trouble took hold. The eerie moan of wind passing over the mouth of the bottle was believed to be the cry of the trapped spirit, desperate to escape.
In the Congo region of Africa, the tradition of the bottle tree was still a common practice in the ninth century. The slave trade of the 17th century brought the bottle tree to Europe and the American colonies. As slavery was more prevalent in the Southeast, the bottle-tree tradition was more common there.
Bottles were hung or positioned upside down on the tree so rain could not fill the bottle. Otherwise, evil spirits would not be able to enter the bottle. Also significant was the color of the bottles. Blue and green were the colors most used for bottle trees, but blue was the more substantial color. Blue was a color associated with spirits and ghosts and thus had superstitious properties in the elimination of evil spirits. Many in the South would paint their front door or the ceiling of the front porch a particular shade of blue to help keep malicious entities at bay. Some referred to it as “haint blue.” Other colors of bottles—such as amber or even clear—may be included on the tree, but blue bottles were displayed most prominently. It was also important that the bottle tree be near the front entrance to the dwelling so as to prevent mischievous spirits from entering the home.
The bottle tree was an influence for writer Eudora Welty in her short story “Livvie.” During a stint as a publicity agent with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s, Welty traveled around Mississippi doing interviews and taking photographs of daily life across the state. On her excursions, she came across homesteads with bottle trees greeting visitors out front. Some years later, when writing her short story, she wove the bottle tree tradition into the plot.
Even now, modern adaptations of this old Southern tradition adorn the landscape of Southern gardens. Some are ornately fashioned from metal concrete reinforcing rod into the shape of a tree with tines pointing upward and outward on which bottles can be affixed. Others may be simple dowel rods that have been drilled into wooden posts on which bottles can be perched. Still others are designed to be hung from the ceiling of a porch. Fancy or plain, bottle trees are becoming popular again. One of the most picturesque adorns the entrance of the Ocean Springs visitors center housed at the historic L&N depot.
Although the bottle tree originated out of a serious desire for protection against harmful spirits, today it seems to be a nod of respect for a Southern tradition. For others, it’s merely a beautiful and original piece for garden décor. You may not attract bad spirits with a bottle tree, but you will attract curious people and their admiration for this unusual art form. And when you do, be sure to pass on the legend of the bottle tree.