Bottle Trees: A Southern Tradition with a Spiritual Past
By Heather Gausline Tate
Southern homes and sometimes even their gardens are alive with rich traditions that we often take for granted as common throughout the country. One of these is the bottle tree, which is a dead tree or a metal rod or rods (resembling branches of a tree) stuck in the ground and decorated with empty glass bottles. Most authentically the bottles are cobalt blue, but many trees are dressed with multi-colored bottles. These are a garden staple in many Southern addresses, yet they would be rare if not unheard of in Northern states. Several readers from Northern states such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey commented on a social media poll that they had never heard of bottle trees before. However, all of the native Mississippians who responded either owned one, wanted one, or at least knew someone who had one in their yards.
History of Bottle Trees
According to Holly Skaggs, author of the article Bottle Trees: A Unique Southern Tradition with Ancient Origins, these trees did not originate in the South. Actually, their origins date back thousands of years ago in 1600 BC Mesopotamia, Africa, and Egypt. The belief was that evil spirits could get trapped in these bottles, and then when the sun rose they would be destroyed. In the 17th century African Americans brought this tradition to the US and began to place glass bottles on trees particularly crepe myrtles found throughout the South. Blue bottles especially the vibrant Cobalt Blue bottles were then most popular bottles because the color was associated with both healing properties and ghosts.
Haint Blue Traditions
Another Southern tradition included painting the ceilings on porches a color known as Haint Blue. These were especially popular in antebellum houses in the Carolina Low Country, according to an article by Haley Laurence. The commonality of the color blue in both the ceilings and the bottles is not a coincidence because the ceilings were painted blue to resemble water which spirits were not allowed to pass. Both the bottle trees and the blue painted ceilings were meant to keep spirits from entering the home.
Why People Have Bottle Trees
Most Southerners use them merely for decorations in their gardens. Some even use them to mark the grave of a dear family pet, such as Caroline Gausline of Guntown, MS, who chose a bottle tree instead of a gravestone or other marker in memory of her furry friend. Jason Glidewell of Saltillo says that he has two in his yard, one that he even built himself as a gift for his wife. They originally adorned multi-colored bottles and the traditional blue ones, but after realizing the other colors faded, they now have only blue. Other owners of bottle trees stated they owned one because they were passed down from a previous owner or because they liked that they recycled instead of wasting. Lori Patterson Corbin of Pontotoc, MS thinks that bottle trees are not only beautiful as they sparkle in the sunlight, but what makes them special is that each bottle can also tell its own story: when it was added, the occasion, and the giver. This is definitely another connection with Southern roots since there is always a story attached.
Most people now do not have bottle trees to protect from evil spirits; many don’t even realize that was the original purpose. Instead, locals welcome them as a creative addition to their yards, like bird baths or garden gnomes. And while they are much more popular to see throughout states such as Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina, they can be seen throughout the world, especially at garden shows. If you do not have a bottle tree already in your yard, it would make a fun family project to remove labels from empty bottles and arrange on a leafless or a metal tree. It would make a great story someday.
Heather Gausline Tate is a freelance writer who lives in Guntown with her husband and their two young sons.