Several years ago, while looking out the window during a blizzard snowfall, I was contemplating what to do with all the blue bottles I had been collecting over the years. My library shelves were full of the blue bottles I had saved and those given to me by those who knew of my fondness for Cobalt Blue.
My first idea was to put up a post, with PVC tubes anchored to the post...something like those aluminum artificial Christmas trees from the past. The snow outside WAS very inspiring! Remembering those silver Christmas trees, I thought I would put my blue bottles over the ends of the "branches". I thought they would look nice in the sunlight...and the snow.
So...a Master Gardener's thinking here..."How can I use THAT in my gardens?"
I soon forgot about using wood or PVC, because I wanted my tree to last. I chose the best solid USA-made Steel for the job and never looked back.
Never having seen anything like this...I thought I had a new and novel idea for a garden accent. After doing some Internet research, I discovered someone else had a similar idea...about 1000 years ago!
My research revealed delightful bits of information about the bottle tree. I found real Bottle Trees in Africa and Australia. Of course, I had to have a real one...found one on the Internet (of course) and ordered one from a tree grower...mine is now about nine feet high. It's a good thing we have very high vaulted ceilings!
The real attraction for me? It was the varied traditions and stories of the bottle tree beliefs which inspired me to make my own in steel. So inspired, I decided to offer my Bottle Trees to other gardeners.
Since my first designs in 2001, I have interpreted the Bottle Tree Tradition with several styles of my unique welded steel trees.
What follows is a pretty fair compilation of some of the beliefs concerning the roots of the bottle tree. I hope you find the story as interesting as I do! Thanks for listening...and taking the time to visit!
The roots of the Bottle Tree are in the middle of 9th century Africa...the Congo.
In Africa, the Congo Tree Altar is a tradition of honoring deceased relatives with graveside memorials. The grieving family would surround the grave with plates. The plates might be leaning against something, attached to sticks, or hung from nearby trees by a string. The plates were thought to resemble mushrooms, calling on an old Congo pun: “matondo”/”tondo”...the Congo word for “mushroom” is similar to their word “to love”.
Of course, the traditions followed the people, and during the slave trade, the people found themselves in the southern United States. Over time, traditions changed as the stories were passed from generation to generation.
In one variation of the belief, bottles were hung from trees by strings, in hopes that any devilish spirits lurking near the house would be attracted to the colorful bottles shining in the dusk. The bottles were tied to both ends of a string and were thrown over a tree branch. Sometimes the insides of the bottlenecks were greased with animal fat, to make the spirit's entry easier and the exit harder.
The Bottle Trees were sometimes placed near the entrance to the house, so the spirits did not enter the house with you. The spirits would become mesmerized by the play of the sunlight through the colors of the glass, and become trapped inside the bottles. The bottles were periodically corked and thrown into the river to wash away the unwanted spirits. In another variation of this theme, the spirits are also trapped in the bottles but are said to be destroyed when the sun comes out the next morning.
Sometimes the bottles, made then of hand-blown glass, were hung by strings, but usually, they were put on the tips of a tree. Cedar trees were most-often used...their up-turned branches pointed heaven-ward and were just right for the placement of the bottles.
Although bottles of many colors were used, blue was thought to be an especially potent spirit repellant. Blue was also thought to protect the home from an illness that might have been spreading through the area. This is why you can still find homes in the south with blue-painted doors and window frames. It was thought blue, the color of sky and water has the power to repel or overcome evil. Blue is also the color of dreams, spirituality, of distance, and the heavenly realm. Whatever color bottle was used, it was the bright colors of the bottle trees which
were used to attract and trap the spirits.
Some who believed the tradition also used the bottle trees to attract and trap ancestral spirits, who were just as feared as the overtly evil ones. This was due to the age-old belief that familial ghosts might return to their living families and take the living back to the land of the dead.
So... I say...
"When a soft wind blows, you can hear the moans
of the trapped spirits whistling in the breeze.
The way the spirits get free is if a bottle breaks,
so, take care around the Bottle Tree!"
African and Australian Bottle Trees