Spend any time at all driving through Appalachia or parts of the American South, especially in rural areas, and you may get a glimpse of the phenomenon known as the bottle tree. Typically made from blue bottles, the bottle tree is said to trap evil spirits and keep them out of your home.
In some areas, the bottles are hung from the tree with twine, but in most places, they are actually stuck right on the ends of branches. There is aHoodoo tradition that says the bottle tree should be created at a crossroads.
Felder Rushing, author of Bottle Trees and Other Whimsical Glass Art for the the Garden, says, “For years I subscribed to the common thread of lore that dates the origin of bottle trees to the Congo area of Africa in the 9th Century A.D. But after extensive research, I find that bottle trees and their lore go back much farther in time, and originate farther north. And that the superstitions surrounding them were embraced by most ancient cultures, including European.”
Make Your Own Bottle Tree
You can create your own bottle tree easily. Obviously, start by collecting bottles. Although in some places the bottles on the tree are multicolored, traditionally cobalt blue is used. Blue has been, for many years, associated with spirits and ghosts in Southern folk magic.
A number of scholars believe that the bottle tree is connected to the evolution ofthe witch bottle as protective magic.
You can use wine bottles, apothecary bottles, or even the blue glass ones that products like milk of magnesia used to come in. Once you have your bottles, be sure to wash them out so you don’t attract unwanted critters in your bottle tree.
To hang the bottles on your tree, simple place them on the ends of the branches. In many regions, it doesn’t appear to matter what kind of tree you use, although legend has it that crepe myrtle is preferred. However, you can even use a collection of large limbs tied together, or even a dead tree, if you don’t have a live tree to decorate.
Spirits and Haints
In Richard Graham’s article, From African Spirit Catcher to American Folk Art Emblem: The Trans-Atlantic Odyssey of the Bottle Tree, the author suggests that there are even more magical properties to the trees beyond the colors of the bottles, although color is significant as well. He says, “Other elements and ideas incorporated into bottle trees suggest the efficacy of its magical properties, at least according to the more mystically minded makers. On their trees, the throats of the bottles are likely to be greased with fat to facilitate the capture of evil spirits fatally attracted to the colored glass. Once sucked inside, it is believed that the spirit cannot escape, the morning sun sealing their fate.”
Graham goes on to say that when the wind blows, causing a sound to emit from the bottles, it is actually the death moans of evil beings.
Lowery is a folk magic practitioner who lives in western Kentucky. He says, "My gran always had bottle trees in her front yard, and we all just thought it was one of those weird old lady things. Then when I got older I started noticing that every once in a while, she'd get rid of a particular bottle by cutting off the whole branch and throwing it in a fire. I asked her why she didn't just take the bottle off the branch and throw it away, and she told me that she was getting rid of the "haints," and she didn't want them roaming around her property."
For some great background on the use of bottle trees in folk magic, be sure to read some of these resources.