The American Bottle Tree
Have you ever caught a glimpse of a bottle tree shimmering in the sunlight of your neighborhood? Made from brightly colored bottles placed over the branches of a tree (or in more recent years a metal frame), these garden sculptures catch attention in any space, such as the one pictured below in the Gibson Garden in Dallas, Texas. Although they are not a particularly common sight, they have a long history as an element of spiritual, cultural, and aesthetic significance in American history and garden design.Folklore and written sources from as early as 1776 indicate that this centuries-old custom originated in the kingdom of Kongo on the West African coast, where vessels were combined with tree branches. When Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves, some were able to continue this practice, using whatever resources they had available. Variations appeared on islands in the Caribbean. The more familiar bottle trees we recognize today were likely a Creole invention, becoming particularly prominent in the southern United States from eastern Texas to South Carolina, where bottles were often placed on the branches of crape-myrtle trees.
While the meaning of bottle trees continues to evolve as it has for centuries, one of the more common interpretations is that they protect the home and garden by catching evil spirits, which some say are attracted to the bottles by their bright colors (sometimes made by swirling paint on the inside of a clear bottle). Once inside, the sunlight destroys the spirit. Other interpretations suggest the spirits are trapped inside the bottles in the evening. Then, the morning sunlight destroys them. If you pass by and happen to hear the wind blowing across the bottles, it is thought to be the sound of the spirits trapped inside. Bottle trees have also been thought to bring rain, luck, and to make trees bloom.
Writer Eudora Welty (1909-2001) took the bottle tree from the landscape onto the pages of American literature in her short story “Livvie,” giving her work a distinct sense of place in the American south. As she described the scene,
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. There was no word that fell from Solomon’s lips to say what they were for, but Livvie knew that there could be a spell put in trees, and she was familiar from the time she was born with the way bottle trees kept evil spirits from coming into the house…Solomon had made the bottle trees with his own hands over the nine years, in labor amounting to about a tree a year, and without a sign that he had any uneasiness in his heart, for he took as much pride in his precautions against spirits coming in the house as he took in the house…
This story, as Welty said in a 1987 interview, was inspired by bottle trees she saw and photographed in rural Mississippi during the 1930s and ’40s: “it was the place, really. And it was the bottle tree that made me write it.” In the same interview, she lamented that “there are hardly any anymore because of the highways. You know, the interstates have come through….They have vanished now, and the roads have come in…But there probably still are some away back in somewhere.”
Although they continue to take on varied forms and uses today, bottle trees still have a presence in gardens and cultural landscapes across the United States, such as those photographed by Vaughn Sills and in the Gibson’s garden in Dallas. Through a long journey encompassing slavery and freedom, and into the Archives of American Gardens, the bottle tree continues to be a garden feature with an American story to tell.
– Joe Cialdella, Enid A. Haupt Fellow