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Amy Dixon: Bottle trees enjoy a long history as garden art and more

Amy Dixon: Bottle trees enjoy a long history as garden art and more

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I'm convinced that no garden is complete without at least one piece of art. Whether it's homemade, re-purposed or commissioned, a thoughtfully placed piece of yard art can add a touch of organic embellishment to any outdoor space.

The bottle tree is a piece of art that can occasionally be seen in the front yard of neighborhood homes. Usually a tall structure covered in an array of blue or multicolored glass bottles, the bottle tree has become a whimsical and beautiful adornment for modern gardens.

The infrastructure of a bottle tree usually consists of two things - a "tree" and a collection of glass bottles. Present-day bottle trees often consist of a metal "tree" structure made of rebar or steel. These prefabricated trees can often be found at garden centers. More traditional bottle trees are built upon an existing dead tree or a cut cedar log. The glass bottles are then added to the tree to complete the form.

The history of the bottle tree is fascinating and is much older than I had imagined. Most sources trace its origin to the ninth-century Congo region of Africa, although other researchers say the tradition of bottle trees dates back much further.

Garden writer Felder Rushing has done extensive research on bottle trees, and discovered that bottle trees probably originated much earlier, as far back as 1600 B.C. in Egypt when hollow glass bottles began to appear. Regarding bottle trees, Rushing says that “the superstitions surrounding them were embraced by most ancient cultures, including European.”

Regardless of its origin, there is a common thread and superstition that surrounds the original purpose of the bottle tree. Bottles were hung in trees, placed on dead tree limbs or simply put outside a home's main entrance   to capture roving evil spirits inside the bottles before they entered the home. Once inside the bottle, the spirits were trapped and ultimately destroyed the next day when the sunlight penetrated the glass.

Adding to the legend and lore that surrounds the bottle tree are sound and color. Evil spirits could be heard inside the bottles when captured - which was, of course, the wind blowing through the bottle necks, echoing sounds of moans.

Cobalt blue is the traditional color of the bottles used, as this color has often been associated with ghosts and spirits. According to appalachianhistory.net, “the elemental blues of water and sky place the bottle tree at a crossroads between heaven and earth, and therefore between the living and the dead.”

The bottle tree was brought to the Americas during the slave trade in the 1700s. The folk art tradition still has its heaviest presence in the deep South, and it made its way up into rural Appalachia. It is in these areas where bottle trees can most commonly be seen in their historic structure - dead trees, crape myrtles and stobby cedars.

In my local search for bottle trees, I found that gardeners place them in their landscapes for many different reasons. Some were familiar with the bottle tree's origin; others weren't. But they all had a connection with their bottle tree, and valued its presence in their landscapes.

Nanny Foster of Greensboro has a bottle tree in her front yard, steps away from her front door. Foster has all blue bottles, which sit upon an slender metal tree structure. Familiar with the bottle tree's history, Foster was intentional with her choice of cobalt blue bottles.

“That's the traditional color, and I like it,” Foster said. “It has a real spiritual sense to it, the evening color and a time to capture the evil spirits. I tend to be a little more traditional in some ways. Gardening is very much a connection with things bigger than myself.”

Foster's tiered front-yard garden is a whimsical mix of art, intricate railings, colorful flowers and contrasting conifers. It is a space that can be enjoyed from the street by neighbors or from within by Foster. Her bottle tree seems to complete the left side of her garden, adding an element of mysterious calm to a nearby seating area.

“That's what's fun about a bottle tree, it can fit anywhere, anytime,” Foster said. “I spend a lot of my life out here, and most people who garden do. So there's a real sense of companionship with it, too.”

Lonnie Blumenthal is another Greensboro gardener who has a bottle tree. Hers is situated in the backyard near a bench, in an area she has recently cleared and will be re-planting in October. Blumenthal's bottle tree is a combination of cobalt blue, teal and green bottles.

“I have quite a bit of eclectic yard art,” Blumenthal said. “I like the bottle tree because it gives height, color, and interest to an open space. I tried the old, dark blue bottles but found they didn't show up from a distance.”

Richard and Susan Austin live right off of Murray Road on the northern tip of Winston-Salem. Their front yard garden turns heads year-round, as their seasonal displays are colorful and fresh. A large bottle tree is the focal point in their landscape.

The Austins drew their bottle-tree inspiration from the North Carolina coast. Bottle trees are a common sight at the beach, as colored glass décor is fitting both inside and outside homes.

“We had a place at Bogue Sound, and bottle trees became very popular down there,” Susan Austin said. “My friend in Calabash, she uses all blue. But I wanted some purple ones and some red ones. I don't like to use all the same color bottles.”

Unfamiliar with the history of the bottle tree, the Austins chose to place one in their garden simply because of the beauty. Richard built it several years ago, constructing the tree out of a square post and large spikes. Susan will occasionally take the bottles off to clean them or switch them out when they fade, but other than that, the bottles stay up through the winter.

If you're interested in adding a bottle tree to your garden, feel free to be creative. Although it has a spooky history, a bottle tree can be anything you want it to be.

Place it near your front door where it will capture all the evil spirits and ill will of the world.  Place it in the far reaches of your back forty, where it will illuminate a dark corner.  Or place it outside your bedroom window, where it will cast colorful rays into your home.  However you choose to display it, a bottle tree can be a fun companion in your garden.

Amy Dixon is an assistant horticulturist at Reynolda Gardens of Wake Forest University. Gardening questions or story ideas can be sent to her at www.facebook.com/WSJAmyDixon or news@wsjournal.com, with "gardening" in the subject line. Or write to Amy Dixon in care of Features, Winston-Salem Journal, 418 N. Marshall St., Winston-Salem, NC 27101

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