Bottle Tree Allee

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Greg Grant

Culture is a funny thing that shapes the way we see and understand the world. Every culture is unique, and icons from each tradition continually cross the cultural boundaries of one group to be reinterpreted by another. (Just think of how ancient Druid priests, who used evergreen trees as a part of their midwinter solstice celebrations, would react to modern-day Christians’ translation of their ancient tradition: today’s Christmas tree.)

Texas blue bottle tree

It’s easy to build your own bottle tree. A Texas gardener stuck with the traditional theme of blue bottles for this work of art.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

Rustic bottle tree

For a more rustic look, use what’s handy to create your bottle tree.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

Modern bottle tree

A bottle tree makes a cool garden feature – just watch where you plant it. While this bottle tree sparkles in the sun, it doesn’t blend in well with its surroundings.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

Prefabricated bottle tree

You can purchase prefabricated bottle trees, too – just add glass for instant impact anywhere in your garden.

Photo Credit: Felder Rushing

Bottle trees – folk symbols of Southern slaves – are enjoying a renaissance, showing up in all types of gardens across the nation. How bottle trees migrated from the homes of poor African-American sharecroppers to suburban gardens deserves some attention.

The bottle tree tradition arrived with slaves from the Congo region of Africa, who believed evil spirits got trapped inside the bottles before they had a chance of getting into the home. (Blue bottles were the favorite color because spirits were said to be especially attracted to it.) In some traditions, these spirits entered at night and were killed when the sun heated the glass during the day. In other traditions, the bottles were periodically removed, plugged, then set adrift in the river.

Sometimes called “spirit trees,” bottle trees came in all shapes, sizes and colors. The best and most traditional were created from a dead crape myrtle – a quintessential Southern plant – adorned with blue bottles stuck willy-nilly on the cut ends of the branches. The cobalt blue milk of magnesia bottle was the standard decoration, but brown snuff or beer bottles worked in a pinch.

In their new life as folk art of American suburbia, today’s bottle trees are more typically seen as an 8-foot-tall pole adorned with multicolored wine bottles – although all kinds of variations on the original version can be found across the country. (Southern garden writers, like Learn2Grow’s own Felder Rushing from Jackson, MS, helped introduce this storied form of garden art to a larger audience and continue to spread the word on this wonderful art.) This modern revival of bottle trees goes with right along with today’s relaxed rules on how to adorn a garden properly: Fun, playful and colorful is in; formality is out.

Want to add a bottle tree to your own garden? If you don’t have a dead tree handy for a traditional version, you can find prefabricated forms at some garden centers – then just add bottles.

Bottle trees are also easy to build from scratch:

Materials

  • A weathered 4x4 post, 8-12 feet long
  • ½-inch dowel rod (found at home improvement stores)
  • ½-inch wood-boring bit
  • Various colorful glass bottles

Instructions

If you plan to use wine bottles for your tree, mark a top hole location on each side of the post, but don’t start them all at the same place – you want informality, not symmetrical balance. Drill the holes 2½ inches deep at about 45-degree angles. Mark additional holes down each side, spacing them 8-10 inches apart – again keeping the spacing loose and informal. When you have enough holes, insert a piece of 10-inch dowel rod into each hole.

When your post is finished, plant it – preferably in a spot where it’ll get some sun. Try to locate it where shafts of sunlight will strike the glass through an opening in a tree canopy so that for a few magical minutes each day the bottle tree will glow, while the background is subdued in shadow. Another great possibility is to position your bottle tree where it will be backlit by the morning and evening sun.

Once you’ve found the perfect spot for your “tree” and have planted it, just add your bottles to enjoy the beauty and tradition of a bygone past…and possibly capture any troublesome haints roaming around your garden.