When Greg Grant, then a Texas A&M University Extension agent, told me about bottle trees and their origins nearly two decades ago, they transfixed me with their beauty, simplicity and ancient past.
I lived in Texas near the Louisiana border, at the time, where bottle trees were found in rural areas.
Now bottle trees are everywhere, from Houston mansions to gardens in Vermont and California. I created one in the perennial bed under my kitchen window and love to gaze upon it amongst the orange and yellow lilies and other perennials, as I wash dishes or cook.
Grant’s good friend Felder Rushing, who lives in the Mississippi Delta, researched the bottle tree migration from Africa with the slave trade to the old South. His book, Bottle trees, and website (click here) are packed with history, legend and gorgeous photos.
When African slaves arrived, they created bottle trees from dead trees or large limbs next to their quarters and adorned them with glass bottles scavenged from their master’s garage piles. Blue bottles were coveted, because they repelled evil and trapped night spirits to be destroyed by the rising sun. Many Milk of Magnesia bottles ended up on trees!
Bottle trees, often referred to as "poor man's stained glass", can also be made from wooden posts with large nails, welded metal rods, or bottles simply stuck on the tines of an upended pitch fork, Rushing says. You can use any color bottle, but blue ones are considered the best, because of their centuries-old association with ghosts and spirits.
A Mississippi Delta homestead with a bottle tree shot by Felder Rushing.
The first natural bottle tree Grant (now curator of Steven F. Austin State University’s arboretum) saw was between Nacogdoches and Crockett, TX at an old home site. “I've always loved glass, junk, and art, so was immediately mesmerized with what it might be. I've been hooked ever since. I'm not a drinker but come from a long line of them. It's my little part of carrying on a family tradition of staring into the yard and seeing pretty colors as the end result of empty bottles.”
Greg Grant's garden in East Texas as shot by Greg.
Now that I live in the frigid north with -25F winters, constructing a bottle tree was a bit of a challenge. There were no dead trees near the kitchen door, and I had cold temperatures to consider. A tree made of welded rebar would weather any temperature. I purchased one for under $20 and drove its tip into the ground before the soil froze.
Gathering the right bottles was more of a challenge than I thought. Like Grant, I’m not much of a drinker and didn’t have cache of colored bottles. So I asked all my friends and family to save blue wine, whiskey or other bottles for me. Did I get an interesting array! Cobalt blue glass, from long-neck wine bottles to round vodka bottles to short, stubby beer bottles, soon showed up on my doorstep. There were enough to complete several tree, so I could be picky about the esthetics.
My rebar bottle tree this year. Credit: Doreen G. Howard
Bottles go on the iron rod tree in early May after the chance of nights in the 20’s disappears. And, they are removed and stored in the basement just before Halloween. I wish I could have their beauty in the garden year-round like those in warmer climates. But, I’m grateful for the ancient legend-based splendor they bring me during gardening season.
Doreen Howard has written for The Old Farmer's Almanac All-Seasons Garden Guide for 15 years and is the former garden editor at Woman’s Day as well as a photographer. She has grown more than 300 varieties of heirloom edibles and flowers in the last two decades.
In stores now!
Look for Doreen's newest book, Heirloom Flavor: Yesterday's Best-Tasting Vegetables, Fruits and Herbs for Today's Cook. Find in stores everywhere including Walmart and on the Web including amazon.com.