Nobody seems to agree on exactly how the current trend of bottle trees got started. People knew how to make glass by mixing sand, soda, lime and other ingredients for color and heating to extremely high temperatures as far back as 4000 years ago in Mesopotamia. (Don't try this at home, though, folks.) A lump of cobalt blue glass was been found in Eridu, near the Euphrates, in modern-day Iraq, dating from about 2000 BC. Similar artifacts have been found at sites dating from 3500 years ago in Rome, Greece, and Egypt, indicating that glass was used and traded from long, long ago.
Is it possible that the djinn (genie, spirit) who got stuck in the lamp was really trapped in a blue glass bottle? However it started, the idea spread that spirits could be trapped inside bottles. Maybe it was the sound of wind blowing across the narrrow top and producing that eerie whistle. (You've blown across an empty soda bottle, so you know what I mean.) Ancient people would mount bottles on sticks or hang them from trees to trap malevolent spirits at night so the sun would burn them off in the morning.
Meanwhile, in Europe, glass-blowers made what eventually evolved into Christmas tree ornaments in the German town of Lauscha by 1597. Descendants of the Roman glass traders perfected millefiore glass beads in Venice and Murano Italian glass claims a thousand-year-old history. These traditional uses of decorative glass arrived in the New World along with immigrants who had fears and superstitions. Anxious people painted hexes on barns and tried to catch witches in witch balls, glass or ceramic hollow balls with a hole in the bottom to catch witches or evil spirits.
The story goes that African slaves put bottles on trees to catch evil spirits. According to Southern historian Mary Joe Clendinin, during the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee, families where the disease was raging hung blue medicine bottles on tree limbs outside their homes to ward off spirits associated with the plague. Many medicine bottles were blue; think of Bromo-Selzer, Phillips Milk of Magnesia, Vicks Vapo-O-Rub, and even my beloved Noxema. Currently, Harvey's Bristol Cream sherry (which cures another way) and a few bottled water, beer or wine companies use blue bottles. Blue glass collectors (I include myself) have been known to hoard them. Do you?
In 1942, southern author Eudora Welty wrote her oft-cited description of bottle trees in the award-wining short story, Livvie:
Out front was a clean dirt yard with every vestige of grass patiently uprooted and ... a line of bare crape-myrtle trees with every branch of them ending in a colored bottle, green or blue. There was no word that fell from Solomon's lips to say what they were for, but Livvie knew that there could be a spell put in trees, and she was familiar from the time she was born with the way bottle trees kept evil spirits from coming into the house--by luring them inside the colored bottles, where they cannot get out again. Solomon had made the bottle trees with his own hands over the nine years, in labor amounting to about a tree a year, and without a sign that he had any uneasiness in his heart, for he took as much pride in his precautions against spirits coming in the house as he took in the house, and sometimes in the sun the bottle trees looked prettier than the house did.

Eudora Welty 1930s photo, 'Bottle Tree'

Photo above, © Eudora Welty Collection
Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Ms. Welty, from Jackson, Mississippi, was hired by the WPA to document and photograph state history during the Depression. One of her most famous pictures, above left, "A House with Bottle-Trees," was taken in Simpson County Mississippi in 1941. If you look carefully, you can see the trees with bottles on the ends of their branches. This may have been the vision for her 1942 story, Livvie, quoted above.

Below, a similarly loose, open, bottle tree.

current day, similar bottle tree

People who grew up in the Antebellum South or in the Caribbean will tell you that bottle trees, dead trees with bottles stuck on the end of the branches, are a slave tradition that became a folk art craze. As Felder Rushing explains, it is simplistic to presume that bottle trees were brought with African slaves. He says, "All [bottle trees] are simple variations on the same theme: bottles on sticks. Bottle trees ... can be made of dead trees or big limbs tied together (crape myrtles and cedars have the best natural forms), wooden posts with large nails, welded metal rods, or bottles simply stuck on the tines of an upended pitch fork or a small number of rebar rods stuck in the ground"

empty blue bottlesDecorating trees with bottles, glass or pretty ornaments seems to be a nearly universal celebration of sunlight, or of bringing the sun's mystery indoors in the winter. So plant a bottle tree or bush in your garden or in your living room with no watering. I wouldn't be able to throw these blue bottles, at left, in the trash.
bottles with labels

These bottles (left) are actual liquor bottles. Since wine undergoes fermentation at such high pressure for so long, wine bottles are apt to have stronger bottles than soda bottles, for instance. You may leave the labels on. or soak them off in hot water. Trees may have evolved from bottle drying racks or dish drainers.

Right, an actual dead tree-stump with lengths of rebar sunk in it for a sturdy tree.


home-made bottle tree, drink-as-you-go
blue bottles on dead branches

Left, a fairly straightforward bottle tree with blue bottles up-ended on dead branches.

Right, variously shaped blue bottles with decorative wire like curling ribbon, in with ornaments, beads, wind chimes, and just more curled wire.

bottle tree with wire and ornaments
woodsy bottle tree

These two trees use their green and blue bottles to blend in among other green leafy trees. Whaddya mean, I don't photosynthesize?

Insert dowels, long nails or lengths of rebar into 4x4 or tree trunk at 45° angles.

tree by LouC, photo by Sheila_FW
curved bottle tree

At left, the beautiful curved swoop of the trunk makes this beautiful multi-colored bottle tree wonderful.

To the right, one example is highlighted from Elmer Long's Bottle Tree Farm in the Mojave Desert (photo courtesy Felder Rushing). Calling it a Bottle Tree farm, like a Christmas tree farm or a soybean farm is part of the allure, for me. It's the way people talk about their trees. Will yours be a specimen tree, or part of a mass planting?

Elmer Long Bottle Tree Farm
bottle tree leafing out.

At left, this photo is not just a red pole with rows of blue, green and brown bottles, it's a 'Bottle Tree Leafing Out."

At right is not just a small bottle tree, it's a "Baby Botle Tree." I kept expecting to stumble across a photo of a tree of Similac bottles, Enfamil bottles, or Gerber bottles. A baby food jar tree, anyone? One vendor sold bottle trees as saplings, firs, shrubs, vines, hedges, Christmas trees. They never outgrow their space and they never need watering. They're hard (though not impossible) to kill. They can be native to any environment (what do your kids drink?) and are hardly ever invasive. Oh, one more thing, they NEVER need watering.

baby bottle tree
Sheila_FW Add lights! Whether you persuade a single miniature bulb to go inside each bottle, highlight the entire tree with a dramatic spotlight, or wind lights around your entire creation, left, lights turn your creation into a 24-hour event. Whether just for winter holidays or all year long, a lighted bottle tree is a glittering beauty. lights!
blue bottle tree at Austin State University

Left, some more pretty blue bottles; these are on a tree outside Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas.

Right, a commercially produced rack to dry beer bottles (in this case for home brewers) is also called a bottle tree.

home brew bottles drying
Sheila's table-top blue bottle tree

You can make a table-top sized tree, left, fairly easily. Be sure to weight the center, base bottle with sand, rocks or cement. Sheila_FW, who built this tree in Texas, has a contact at a restaurant who saves the blue bottles for her.

At right, this full-size bottle-tree in Maryland is adorned with only blue bottles. It looks like a front hall coat tree to me.

blue outdoor vertical bottle tree
very blue indoor treeHere are two bottle trees designed for indoor use, the left one from Tennessee. Add a tree topper and a tree skirt and display your gifts underneath.
floor-sized indoor bottle tree

blue bottles in snow

Weather: blue or brightly colored bottles sure look pretty in the snow, don't they? (left) Freezing temperatures and heavy snow add whole new complexities for bottle trees. Be completely sure your bottles are pointing down so they drain easily.

(right) Felder Rushing calls this the world's biggest bottle tree.

c. Felder Rushing, all rights reserved.

Whether your tree harkens after a thousand-year old tradition, is adapted from African slave traditions, or is inspired by newly produced fine art glass, your bottle tree can go way beyond just repurposing and recycling. Add a bottle tree to your holiday decor this year!

Copy and paste these links for more ideas, or just search "bottle trees" in your favorite search engine.

PICTURE CREDITS: Thanks to Felder Rushing, Sheila_FW, LouC, and DianeEG. A huge thank-you to all the brilliant and generous photographers at Flickr; click on individual photographs to link to original appearance on Flickr, some rights reserved. Thanks to Kevin Weisener through Creative Commons and Wikipedia. Thumbnail image property of MOLLYBLOCK from Flickr, some rights reserved.