From Under the Bottle Tree

If you live in the Southern United States, chances are you’ve seen a bottle tree. Even if you don’t live in the South, there’s a good chance you’ve seen one. Sometimes they’re artificial, a “tree” made of wood, or sometimes metal, with colorful glass bottles on the “branches.” Sometimes it’s an actual tree that the owners have put bottles on.

Growing up in Florida and now living in North Carolina, I’ve seen my share and always thought they were a lawn decoration cooked up by people who love to recycle. Glass bottles can be quite beautiful, especially the colorful ones, and I totally understand not wanting to throw them away.

Not surprisingly, I was wrong.

Bottle trees have roots (pun fully intended) in Africa.

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Rusted Roots, a bottle tree sculpture at the North Carolina Museum of History. Photo by Megan Burgess, 2017.

Sources agree that the bottle tree originated with slaves brought to the South from Central and West Africa. It’s estimated that approximately 40% of the 10 million slaves taken from Africa during the Atlantic Slave Trade were from this area. Much of this region was influenced by the Kingdom of Kongo at this time, which had a tradition of attaching ancestors’ plates to tree branches near their grave to “arrest their talents” for the living.

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Kongo Tree Altar. Photo taken by Jerry L. Thompson for the Museum of African art. Image via Faces of the Gods: The Artists and Their Altars by Robert Farris Thompson.

On the other side of the Atlantic, this tradition morphed into the bottle tree. Tree branches were cut down to just a few inches and bottles placed on the stubs. While any tree could be used, crepe myrtle trees became the tree of choice because they symbolized freedom and the Promised Land. The myrtle tree (different than the crepe myrtle) is referenced in the Bible in conjunction with the Hebrews’ escape from slavery but I couldn’t find concrete evidence that that was the reason for the crepe myrtle being the preferred tree. If you’ve ever been to the south, you know that crepe myrtles are plentiful. I have to wonder if that is part of the reason they were chosen to make bottle trees.

In any case, the color of the bottles was far more important than the tree they were placed on. Cobalt blue, the color of the bottles on Rusted Roots, was the color of choice because it symbolized the space between the realm of the living and the dead. It was thought that wayward soul s were trapped in this space.

The bottle tree helped ward off bad spirits and bring good luck.

The spirits would be attracted to the bottles shining in the sunlight (or moonlight), become trapped inside, and burn up in the sun. The wind whistling through the bottles was thought to be the spirits moaning.

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Cobalt blue bottles on Rusted Roots. Photo by Megan Burgess, 2017.

Today bottle trees can still be seen and have become part of southern lore.

They’ve crossed the line into folk art and a quick search for “bottle tree” brings up tutorials for making your own, pre-made trees for purchase, and even brightly-colored bottles to adorn your tree with. That feels a little disingenuous to me but to each his or her own, I suppose.

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Bottles on Rusted Roots. Photo by Megan Burgess, 2017.

Next time you see a bottle tree, or perhaps the first time you see one, know that they are steeped in history and are not a lawn decoration created by people that love to recycle.

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Rusted Roots plaque. Photo by Megan Burgess, 2017.


Sources not linked in post

The Legend of the Southern Bottle Tree
The Bottle Tree

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