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Bottle Trees: Southern Spirit Catchers with African Roots

It's just me, clicking the keys, burning hi-octane conjure and working wonders at the old dirt track crossroads in AZ.

bottletrees

The Origin of the Bottle Tree

Bottle trees have their roots in Congo culture. The practice was brought over by slaves who hung blue bottles from trees and huts as talismans to ward off evil spirits. It is believed that the spirits become mesmerized by the colors of the bottles in the sun. Once they enter the bottle, they can't find their way out, sort of like roach motels.

According to Wikipedia, "Glass 'bottle trees' orginated in Northern Africa during a period when superstitious people believed that a genii or imp could be captured in a glass bottle. Legend had it that empty glass bottles placed outside the home could "capture" roving (usually evil) spirits at night, and the spirit would be destroyed the next day in the sunshine. This practice was taken to Europe and North America by African slaves. While Europeans adapted them into hollow glass spheres known as "witch balls" the practice of hanging bottles in trees became widespread in the Southern states of North America, where they continue to be used today as colorful garden ornaments." Well, not exactly, as Africans don't believe in genies or imps...wrong culture Wiki...but you got the general idea.

Bottle trees have been featured as accessories in most of the prestigious flower show garden displays all over the world.

Additionally, glass bottles, which have long been placed in windows for color ("poor man's stained glass"), are also commonly used to line flower beds.

Bottle tree, photographed at the 36th Annual Ocean Springs- Elks Mardi Gras Parade, Mississippi

Bottle tree, photographed at the 36th Annual Ocean Springs- Elks Mardi Gras Parade, Mississippi

Bottle tree, photographed at the 36th Annual Ocean Springs- Elks Mardi Gras Parade, Mississippi

Southern Spirit Catchers with African Roots

It used to be that you could see bottle trees scattered all over the Southern landscape. Usually in the country or along the bayous of Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama, bottle trees are a colorful folk tradition with the purpose of warding off evil spirits, while at the same time recycling colorful bottles.

My mother and grandmother made bottle trees and proudly displayed them in their yards. Not surprisingly, I have taken up the practice, too. I find it to be a wonderful way of displaying all of the those cool vintage bottles I have collected over the years that tend to gather dust in boxes or on the windowsills. On a bottle tree, they now work for me by keeping evil spirits out of the house. The spirits become mesmerized with their dancing colors in the sun, and are drawn into the bottles only to be trapped for all eternity. At least, that's the way the story goes.

Are you ready to go green and contribute to a dying Southern tradition by making your own bottle tree? Then keep reading, because I am going to tell you how to make several variations of the Southern spirit bottle tree.

Livvie, by Eudora Welty

Livvie, by Eudora Welty

Eudora Bottle Tree Photograph

© Eudora Welty Collection

Mississippi Department of Archives and History

This photograph by Eudora Welty, of a home in Simpson County, reflects a folk belief that "bottle-trees" - trees on whose limbs bottles have been placed - will trap evil spirits that might try to get in the house. Welty used bottle trees in her short story "Livvie," which was set near the Old Natchez Trace, a famous colonial "road" used by Indians, merchants, soldiers, and outlaws between Natchez and Nashville, Tennessee. This photograph, like many others taken by Welty during her work for the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, appears in One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression: A Snapshot Album (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996).

Bottle Trees • Eudora Welty

Bottle Trees • Eudora Welty

Bottle Trees: ...and the Whimsical Art of Garden Glass

Urban Tree Bling

There are many ways people are adapting this African tradition in urban America.I saw one garden where each piece of cobalt blue glass, including saucers and plates are staked into the ground throughout the garden.

There are many ways people are adapting this African tradition in urban America.I saw one garden where each piece of cobalt blue glass, including saucers and plates are staked into the ground throughout the garden.

The Birth of a New Bottle Tree

bottletrees

So we have this awesome peach tree that unfortunately had been giving it the good fight, half of its branches are dead but even so she produces a lot of peaches...at least she did last year. She kept us up to our necks in peaches - they were delicious and I have become an expert peach cobbler maker. I went out and pruned her and cut off a bunch of those branches, but as I was doing so, I thought maybe she would like to be a bottle tree. The bottles could decorate her dead branches and she would be beautiful!

This year my son has taken a liking to Mountain Dew. As a result, I started saving the bottles so that I can make our peach tree an all green, Mountain Dew bottle tree! Now, my thinking is that green is the color of money, and though they say money doesn't grow on trees, if I fill in all those dead branches eventually, each bottle having a cash in value....well, no... they're right, money doesn't grow on trees. But, these bottles sure make my poor peach tree look and feel better. She's looking greener already. And me too. No, I'm not looking greener...there's just something so comforting about bottle trees that connects me to home on the Gulf coast.

I've got a long ways to go but each week I'm adding more bottles. Eventually, it will be perfect.

How to Make a Spirit Bottle Tree

Choose a strong tree or stump with branches. Crepe myrtles and cedars trees are traditionally used, although pretty much any kind of tree will work. Trim all of the foliage off of the tree and cut the branches down until you have as many bare branches as you have bottles. Then you simply slide the bottles onto the branches.

A variation of this is to take a fallen branch and prune it the same fashion. Then, you have a portable tree. Plant it outside of your home, near the entrance or in the garden or anywhere you want in your yard and slip your bottles onto the branches.

Here's a tip: If you put a little oil on the bottle necks, the spirits will slip easily into the bottles and become trapped that much quicker.

Beautiful Bottle Tree Photos

bottletrees


I used to have a module of Flickr Photos of some very nice bottle trees...then, they took them down due to copyright reasons and instead put a link to the bottle trees group. So, if you want to see some photos of bottle trees, go to Flickr and type in bottle trees and you will find a lot of them.

Because I wanted this to be an image rich lens (as all of my lenses are, but this one especially so...you can only talk so much about something so beautiful) I went on another internet search and I found the mother lode. OMG! You have got to see this site called Bottle Trees. This guy has so many fantastic photos of bottle trees that you have to go and see them. I borrowed a photo from his site, I hope he doesn't mind as I am giving credit and links and many, many cudos. This photo is just a teaser. I am serious, go and check out Bottle Trees now!

This photo is of bottle trees in Shangri La Botanic Garden, Orange Texas (photographs courtesy of Greg Grant).

Green Glass Beer Bottle Christmas Tree

Green Glass Beer Bottle Christmas Tree

Green Glass Beer Bottle Christmas Tree

Bottle Tree - Adansonia aka Baobab

bottletrees

Now this is a bottle tree, but not the kind this article is about. Still, how could I not include it? OMG it is phenomenal! And apparently you can eat the leaves in a soup! In fact, the Australian Aborigines have multiple uses for these magnificent trees, from eating the leaves, to using parts of it medicinally, as fiber and dye, and carving ornaments from the fruits and wearing them as body adornments.

Some folks in South Africa built a pub inside a hollow one called "The Big Baobab Pub", and there was even one large enough to be used as a prison in Australia. Now THAT's got to be a big tree.

According to Wikipedia, six species of this tree are native to Madagascar, one is native to mainland Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, some are in India and one to Australia. The mainland African species also occurs on Madagascar, but it is not a native of that island.

Photo 2007 by Bernard Gagnon

The Bottle Tree Ranch: Amazing Folk Art on Route 66

One of the great folk art sites in America can be found along Route 66 near Barstow, California. Elmer Long's Bottle Tree Ranch is a sight to behold: over 400 man-made trees created from old glass bottles and other antiques. Take a one-minute tour in this installment of Off The Beaten Path.

Bottle Tree stump. Photo copyright  Denise Alvarado, all rights reserved.

Bottle Tree stump. Photo copyright Denise Alvarado, all rights reserved.

How to Make a Bottle Tree Stump

Here is yet another way to make a bottle tree using a tree stump. Gather your bottles together and find a tree stump you like that sits well on end. Take some long nails and drive them into the stump at equal distance from each other, staggering the rows so the bottles don't rub against each other. Slip the bottles onto the nails and there you have it!

Want more detailed instructions? Alrighty then...your wish is my command!

bottletrees

Step One: Find Your Stump and Gather Supplies

bottletrees


This is the first step...you have to have a tree stump in order to make it a bottle tree stump. So, take a cruise around the local countryside, peruse your neighborhood for someone who may have recently cut down a tree, or check out your own backyard. One of my favorite ways to find tree stumps and limbs for other projects is right after a nasty storm. Where I live, if we have a storm, invariably there will be fallen limbs and trees all around. Grab your saw and get cutting!

Once you have your stump, you will need a drill to drill holes into it, nails or screws, and hammer, and a variety of bottles.

Bottle Tree Stump. Photo copyright Denise Alvarado, all rights reserved.

Bottle Tree Stump. Photo copyright Denise Alvarado, all rights reserved.

Step Two: Decide what bottles to use

Photo copyright Denise Alvarado, all rights reserved.

Photo copyright Denise Alvarado, all rights reserved.


You will need to know which bottles you will use so that you know how long of nails or screws you need, and how far to drive them into the stump. This was a relatively small stump I wanted to place on my picnic table (which, by the way, if you have kids and especially rambunctious boys, not a good place to keep your bottle tree). It looked good for a day, though...then slowly, one my one my bottles started to disappear and no one seemed to know what was happening to them!

I had collected a variety of small bottles for awhile and thought they would be perfect for this stump. I wanted an all green bottle tree, but I didn't have quite enough little green bottles. No matter, there is no rule that says you have to fill the entire stump, much less fill it with the same color bottles.

Step Three: Drive the Nails Into the Stump

bottletrees


This may seem to be an easy task, but for it to come out looking right it is a little tricky. First, you have to drive in your nails at an angle. I actually used screws because I couldn't locate my long nails anywhere (Hmm, could it be that rambunctious, yet creative little tool thief called my son again?)

The second thing to consider is staggering your nails or screws so that they are not all lined up in a row and touching each other. Glass is glass after all, and vintage glass is even more fragile, so make sure your nails are staggered and far enough apart to provide the kind of coverage you want and are not touching each other.

Step Four: Slip Your Bottles Onto the Nails or Screws

bottletrees


Now that you have your stump ready with the nails or screws at a slight upward angle so they won't fall offf, start slipping on your bottles carefully. At this point, you may have to do some adjusting, such as take that drill and screw those screws in a little farther or out a little more so that the bottles will not fall off easily. Oh yeah, i forgot to mention to make sure that the head of the nails or screws you will be using are not larger than the opening of the bottles. Did that once, and felt pretty stupid.

If you look closely at this photo, you will see where some adjusting is needed. Some of the screws were not quite at the right angle, and the spacing needed to be adjusted.

Step Five: Finish Adjusting and Adding Bottles

bottletrees

Step Five: Finish Adjusting and Adding Bottles

Bottle Tree Stump. Photo copyright Denise Alvarado, all rights reserved worldwide.

Bottle Tree Stump. Photo copyright Denise Alvarado, all rights reserved worldwide.


Now all you have to do is play around with it for while until you get everything the way you want it to look. I mentioned earlier that I had some screws that needed adjusting and I needed to adjust some of the spacing. I also mentioned I wanted just green bottles; but alas, I had to surrender and use some of my little brown and clear bottles as well. Still turned out pretty cool though, don'tcha think?

And that lone screw sitting there without a bottle on the left? Well, a little imp ran off with that bottle.

Great Bottle Tree Stuff on Amazon

Become an insider

Become an insider

© 2008 Denise M Alvarado

Reader Feedback

Denise M Alvarado (author) from Southwest on July 12, 2014:

Fixing to update this page about bottle trees, I have a new bottle tree to show y'all:)

nonya222 on September 20, 2013:

I live in Florida and love the South but have never seen these which is so sad as they are beautiful. I am adding one or two or maybe 3 to my garden.

Lorelei Cohen from Canada on August 25, 2013:

I live in Canada and have never seen a bottle tree (or heard of one). I enjoyed every word of your article on them. What a wonderful tradition for warding off evil spirits.

sheriangell on August 14, 2012:

I love these. Every time I see one, I always wondered what their history was. Thanks for providing that!

Miska29 on May 18, 2012:

How wounderful... :)

ResearchAddict on May 03, 2012:

This is an awesome lens. I have seen bottle trees and would like to make on just for fun!

Thrinsdream on March 09, 2012:

Fantastic, I went to the bottle tree site you recommended and I am in awe, it's beautiful. Thank you for introducing me to something I never knew about before, I love it! With thanks and appreciation. Cathi x

LewesDE on February 18, 2012:

Love this lens!

Country Sunshine from Texas on February 17, 2012:

I've never heard of these, but I really like them! I'm going to have to create a few of these for my house!

Edutopia on February 15, 2012:

At my last apartment my neighbors at the corner of the street had a rather large tree that they've turned into a bottle tree using only Sky Vodka bottles. Now I know what they were trying to do!

WhitePineLane on January 10, 2012:

Awesome lens! I had never heard of a bottle tree, but the concept is fascinating! I love your idea of using antique bottles too. Also, thanks for the spell! I might need to use that on someone I know.... ;-)

Pam Irie from Land of Aloha on January 10, 2012:

I've always been fascinated with the concept of bottle trees.

vkumar05 on December 31, 2011:

Very innovative Lens. Great Work.

Ken Parker from Tacoma, Wa on December 31, 2011:

I have the bottles now I just need a tree to put them on.

lesliesinclair on December 03, 2011:

Those blue bottles are stunning, and such an easy thing to use to decorate a yard.

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage from southwestern Virginia on November 04, 2011:

What a wonderful lens! Great photos, interesting information and attention to detailed instructions. Thanks so much for sharing your hard work...Cercis

Karen Kay from Jackson, MS on October 19, 2011:

Thanks so much for giving bottle trees a place here on Squidoo. They are a lovely part of our southern culture. I still see them around a good bit in Jackson, MS. I guess they aren't really dying here yet. Thanks also for spotlighting Felder Rushing's site. He's a bit of a local hero around here! Blessed!

kimmanleyort on September 29, 2011:

I've always loved bottle trees and learned something new here about them. Fascinating to learn of the their history. Blessed by a Squid Angel.

anonymous on September 02, 2011:

I enjoyed your lense. It is wonderful to learn about the traditions of people, this is so interesting. Thank you.N T T

dahlia369 on August 13, 2011:

Very interesting and fun, great images. Nicely done & great resource. ***Angel blessed*** during my epic Back to School Bus Trip quest :)

WhiteOak50 on August 12, 2011:

After finally catching up with the Angel School Bus, I am fluttering around Legends & Folklore-ville to drop off some Blessings. Just wanted you to know I am here because your page caught my attention. Leaving you with a *Blessing* for doing such a great job on this page.

reasonablerobby on May 27, 2011:

We don't have anything like this in the UK, what a great idea.

jamesnodturft on May 19, 2011:

Very interesting and the pictures of trees are stunning.

LensSeller on May 02, 2011:

Some very interesting ideas - and works of art!

Philippians468 on April 14, 2011:

what an excellent way to recycle old bottles! thank you for sharing this refreshing lens! cheers

Anahid LM on April 12, 2011:

Hi It is interesting I like the blue bottles on trees, and the Christmas bottle tree. Great work. Happy Easter to you. Anna

Renaissance Woman from Colorado on April 07, 2011:

Very interesting! Love that Christmas tree with the green bottles.

Ayngel Overson from Crestone, Co on April 01, 2011:

Lovely... and something to do with all of the antique bottles my kids and I bring home from treasure hunts!!! Happy Experts Day!!!

garyrh1 on March 29, 2011:

Hah! Those look pretty neat.

Pete Schultz on March 28, 2011:

A new way to dispose of bottles and ward off evil....thanks, very interesting.

ChrisDay LM on February 18, 2011:

Well done on that Purple Star

tealmermaid on February 07, 2011:

Interesting lens idea. Never heard of these before.

Guitar-Teacher on January 05, 2011:

Hehe, these look pretty cool. No need to water these trees, maybe they would even survive at my place :-)Tom @

turner-bob on December 25, 2010:

Interesting!

most12 on December 22, 2010:

dd

most12 on December 22, 2010:

good ider

most12 on December 22, 2010:

bottle cutter I keep finding cool wine bottles and adding to my bottle collection.

anonymous on December 13, 2010:

Avandia LawsuitAccutane LawsuitWellbutrin LawsuitFosamax LawsuitPaxil LawsuitAb Circle Pro

ShamanicShift on September 12, 2010:

Awesome! I am just about to feature this lens on my new evil-spirits lens (about many perspectives and traditions, loosely as well as directly relating to the topic).

Obscure_Treasures on August 23, 2010:

I want to leave my congratulations to this superb lens. This is one of the best lenses in squidoo that I have ever seen.

Mickie Gee on June 17, 2010:

My husband has been promising to make me a bottle tree for two years, now. Well, needless to say the keyword here is "promising". Meanwhile, I keep finding cool wine bottles and adding to my bottle collection.

lasertek lm on May 31, 2010:

When I read the title, I thought the lens is about the bottle tree. A tree whose trunk is bottle-shaped. To my surprise, it is literally a tree with bottles hanging. This is really a great lens you know.

anonymous on December 17, 2009:

What a unique lens! Congratulkations on being nominated for a Giant Squid Award and SquidAngel Blessings for you.

Sherry Venegas from La Verne, CA on December 13, 2009:

Like this one.

ulla_hennig on December 08, 2009:

I never heard of that tradition - thanks for sharing! I love the blue bottles on the trees, they really look great!

clouda9 lm on December 05, 2009:

This was such an enjoyable read - loved the Bottle Trees website too. I actually feel inspired to make my own. Congrats on your 2009 Giant Squid Awards nomination.

Deb Kingsbury from Flagstaff, Arizona on November 27, 2009:

I'd never heard of this tradition before. How neat! Love that photo of the row of bottle trees along the pathway.

Nancy Tate Hellams from Pendleton, SC on November 19, 2009:

I love to see the Bottle Trees at Edisto in South Carolina. This is a wonderful lens with great photos. Lensrolling to my lens about the book Reflections Of A Mississippi Magnolia. Also I am leaving you with a Squid Angel Blessing.

monarch13 on October 20, 2009:

Very cool

Denise M Alvarado (author) from Southwest on September 18, 2009:

[in reply to rms] Thanks much!

Robin S from USA on August 22, 2009:

Beautifully crafted lens about a very interesting topic!

eventyr on August 11, 2009:

I love this tradition! Maybe I should start one in Norway!

Joan4 on July 27, 2009:

I actually saw my first bottle tree this summer - and have lived in the south all my life! I really enjoyed reading the origin of this unusual practice. Blessed by a joyful SquidAngel.

Denise M Alvarado (author) from Southwest on July 22, 2009:

Thank you!

Jimmie Quick from Memphis, TN, USA on July 11, 2009:

I am not familiar with this animistic superstition although I grew up in the South. Your lens is well crafted.You're officially blessed!

anonymous on June 22, 2009:

There's still some old bottle trees scattered about in East Texas. Especially off the main roads on the old blacktops. Often times it'll be a cedar post in the yard with the limbs cut back and the bottles set on the end. I have been familiar with them since I was a kid...almost 50 years ago. Also to be found here are the broken dishes on top of gravesites. Sea shells too but they are harder to find/get for obvious reasons.I may start building some and see how they go...I own an antique/junk store.

Demaw on June 07, 2009:

I place old style perfume bottles on twigs, sort of like the picture of the portable bottle tree. I also place twigs decorated with small bottles in the pots with my indoor plants as decoration. 5 star lens and very original.

anonymous on April 03, 2009:

I have known of these trees for many years and had my own when I lived in the south. I am a born and bread Southern Girl, but have been living in Indiana for about 7 years now. This has inspired me to start another here in my yard and see what all these yankees have to say! ;-) I must also point out that the bottle tree in part 2 (above) is most authentic. They should be hung from the branches close enough for them to touch each other like wind chimes, neck up, by a string or such, not stuck on them. If the bottle is upside down or tipped over, the spirits can escape, and if the neck is not open, you won't be able to hear the spirits moan......

anonymous on March 12, 2009:

I have had my bottle tree for years, Cool things happen when the sun hits. Some of them are captured in photo, I look for other's trees and I see few. None here in Tennessee, that I have seen. Some in South Carolina, I saw none in Louisiana, Is the tradidtion as gone as it seems?

anonymous on January 29, 2009:

Love it.

Sensitive Fern on September 29, 2008:

These are so cool, especially in person. They remind me of Chihuli installations.

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