Understanding the Significance of Glass Bottles Hanging from Trees

Understanding the Significance of Glass Bottles Hanging from Trees

If you’ve ever visited the American South, you might have noticed a unique piece of folk art in someone’s yard or garden. These are called bottle trees and they consist of colored bottles that are placed upside down on the branches of trees or a metal stand. Traditionally, crepe myrtle trees were used for this purpose, as they were considered a symbol of freedom since ancient times. Nowadays, the core materials used to create bottle trees have been updated to include metal rods that are drilled into a base and then anchored in the ground. Regardless of the materials used, these bottle trees are a celebration of Southern culture, a tribute to past generations, and a way to honor ancestors.

According to The Mississippi Encyclopedia published by the University Press of Mississippi, the tradition of bottle trees dates back to the ancient Kingdom of Kongo. It is believed that in the ninth century, bottles were used to mark graveyards as part of a funeral ritual. With the rise of the Atlantic slave trade in the 17th century, displaced people continued the tradition, using whatever materials they could find to create bottle trees. It was believed that the colored glass would reflect sunlight, which would attract malevolent spirits that would then be trapped inside the bottles, preventing them from entering nearby homes. Another story suggests that the spirits are drawn to the glass at night and become trapped inside the bottles until the sunlight destroys them in the morning.

Bottle tree beliefs were part of a worldwide tradition

Hanging witch ball

Maria T Hoffman/Shutterstock

Smithsonian Gardens describes how bottle trees, once ubiquitous in the southeastern United States, continue to maintain a presence as a cultural, spiritual, and historic icon today. Cobalt blue is the most popular glass color used because the color represents both water and sky, both attracting and confusing the spirits. Besides placement near a house, bottle trees were located near important meeting places and crossroads, to catch any wandering evil spirits. Wind blowing over a bottle’s opening creates a moaning sound, and legend says this is an indication that a spirit is trapped inside. Historically, bottle trees were found from east Texas to northern Florida, but the tradition wandered north into Appalachia, and much further south into Caribbean countries as well.

It’s worth commenting that the idea of glass fixtures warding off evil energy is rampant in stories throughout the world, and has been for centuries. In British folklore, the instrument for this task wasn’t a bottle but a witch ball, a hollow glass globe. Hung at the entrance of a house or in a window, a glass ball would cause a witch to be trapped within. Alternatively, the reflective glass would cause a witch to curse her own reflection by mistake. Witch balls were popular in 17th and 18th century England and were brought to New England during this period. Bottle trees are just one version of this ancient tradition.

If you put up a bottle tree, do it to honor the past

Bottle tree and garden art

David Mcnew/Getty Images

As we’ve become better acquainted with scientific principles, the idea of evil spirits lurking about to cause harm is often discredited as superstition or fairytale. But just because we know now that certain conditions cause illness, and that germs cause infection, there’s no reason to completely abandon the magical thinking bygone generations believed to be true. Installing a bottle tree in the garden today can be an homage to people of the past. Creating a tree is a nod to history, and a bit of culturally influenced art. Either way, constructing one can be every bit as respectful and reverently meaningful as trees made hundreds of years ago,

As their popularity as folk art grows, instructions on creating new bottle trees are readily available. Resources from TikTok, YouTube, Pinterest, and the Farmer’s Almanac readily illustrate steps to create an authentic bottle tree in your yard. A quick internet search will also show you where to buy an entire tree from commercial vendors from Etsy to Amazon. Bloggers and landscapers who have installed a bottle tree indicate how much they appreciate the bits of glass reflecting color amid blooming flowers, almost like having a stained-glass window in your yard. Even if a bottle tree is not to your liking, maybe something else with glass or color would appeal. In general, from bottle trees to statuary, the garden is a fantastic space to showcase artwork.

Dr Heidi Parkes

By Dr Heidi Parkes

Senior Information Extension Officer QLD Dept of Agriculture & Fisheries.