EMBRACE PROHIBITION (Bottle Trees – A New Englander’s View)


The one that got me started Bottle Tree Mississippi Craft Center, Ridgeland, MS

“While “pink flamingo people” in general see themselves as part of a bigger concept, sorta like sharing an informal alliance, they are not “bottle tree people” – who, to a person, are singular creatures seeing their creations as truly unique. which is why, to me, mass-fabricated bottle trees are so sh*tty looking.”  Felder Rushing

The other day, I parked outside the liquor store waiting for the digital clock to move out of the elevens and into the twelves signalling the start of a new retail day.  They were about 30-seconds late. My garden-tending disheveledness spoke volumes of untruths so I drowned out those thoughts by speaking loudly about my need for colorful bottles for “A BLOG I AM WRITING ABOUT BOTTLE TREES. THIS IS ALL RESEARCH FOR MY BLOG!”

Bottle Options: Frost,Blue,Green,Clear

People have been doing things with emptied bottles for ages: sending messages, building ships inside them, growing pears, using them for target practice, candle sticks and weapons. Only recently, when I visited the American South (aka Mississippi), did I realize the depth of the fanaticism surrounding that new/old cult icon, Bottle Trees.

Bottle Trees at first glance seem like an environmentalist’s dream (all those bottles kept out of the landfill), and a neighbor’s nightmare I called “junk on a stump” masquerading as art.

But why are people hanging recyclables on trees?

Greg Grants Garden Texas photo from http://www.felderrushing.net/BottleTreeImagess.htm

Doesn’t it take the DPW guy way too much time to remove them one at a time from the branches compared to just tipping them out of the recycling bin?

With the gracious assistance of Felder Rushing (THE authority on Southern Gardens and the stuff that festoons them), and a variety of other sources, I’ve learned that the bottle tree originally was created to trap evil spirits. Spirits chase the twinkling light reflecting on glass and so are drawn inside (like a moth to the flame), and then cannot get out. Some say the morning light kills them. So in days of old, bottles were strung like Christmas ornaments on trees near the entrance to a home. All in all, not a bad way to kill evil spirits, if you find it necessary to do so. Many sources say this tradition started in Africa and was brought to the Southern US during slave trading days, but not Felder; he says it started much earlier. He hints at a European origin.

The origin is beside the point (though elitist New Englanders are more likely to attribute tastefulness to something of European descent than they are to things Southern).

Medicine Bottle Tree from NC Botanic Garden from Felder Rushing’s website

The question remains– why are modern people who know nothing of evil spirits displaying their trash?

As of today, bottle trees haven’t really caught on in a big way in New England, and I can guess why. New Englanders see the leaves, not the trees, much less the forest, and would be evaluating each other based on refuse. If the Smith’s have a really big tree, we’d start planning an intervention to get them off the hooch. Don’t ever eat at the Jones’ house, they go through hundreds of bottles of Milk of Magnesia as evidenced by their cobalt tree. Gee, Suzie, perhaps you’re putting on weight because you’re drinking 18 glass bottles worth of milk and cream every week.

You may say “what’s the harm in this display?” to which I reply “plenty”.

1.  I would have to buy a better (read more expensive) caliber of wine knowing it would be on display, see ya Two Buck Chuck.

I found this cobalt Bottle Garden not far from my home.There is a traditional Bottle Tree at the far end. With over 400 bottles/glass pieces in her garden, some have inevitably self-seeded across the street.

2.  Next up, a need for a wider assortment of liquor for the colors:  Skye Vodka, a lot of Rieslings, and Luna de Luna Chardonnay for cobalt. And if I wanted to add shade variations, I’d need Bombay Sapphire or that terrifically awful whipped cream vodka. There is a price to pay, bottle trees arborists. You will ultimately drink too much, or waste too much, and I don’t like waste.

3.  As bad as it would be for me personally, I would posit bottle trees are not good for the environment either, as some people kill perfectly healthy, beautifully limbed trees to adorn with artificial glass foliage – or are the bottles the flowers? In any event, glass trees don’t intake carbon dioxide or release oxygen. It is deforestation for the purpose of evil spirit entrapment.

NOTE: I STAND CORRECTED, MOST PEOPLE DO NOT HARM TREES IN THEIR CONVERSION FROM DEADWOOD TO BOTTLE TREES, OR DON’T USE “TREES” AT ALL!

4.  As people strive to create increasingly elaborate visions in glass and sticks, they no longer look to their recycling bins, that’s too limiting. Bottles are created now for the sole purpose of Bottle Tree Adornment, and can cost up to $10 per empty, unused bottle in the right color. Apparently cobalt is the favored color, though Felder likes the subtlety (?) of all green.  I would want red (and maybe some orange) in my bottle tree, were I to indulge. But companies don’t make red bottles because the ingredients are too expensive. Guess that’s good for the hummingbirds who would otherwise be knocking themselves unconscious by crashing into empty red bottles trying to get a drink, then waking up, head throbbing in the mouth of a lazy cat thinking, “man that must have been some crazy sugar-water party yesterday.”

5.  While I, with my artistic eye, might make a stunning collection of glass and branches, what if my neighbor doesn’t share my talent and merely sticks a bunch of Buds on shish kabob sticks? I don’t want to see that all year. We cannot allow every person to create a bottle tree. There must be bottle tree certification, regulation, and licensing classes.

…However… if you surround yourself with the unusual long enough, it starts to feel normal, and I confess to picking up a few nips at the liquor store to test out my mini indoor bottle tree skills. I’m crossing over into the dark, make that the bright, side. Slippery slope alert!

First draft thoughts: maybe it will be easier once I’ve emptied the bottles of their contents, but based on what I’ve created, I’d say, my neighbors should probably start the ball rolling on a supplemental open container law. This one would prohibit the display of open alcohol containers in public for both drinking AND display purposes.

My bottle tree mock-up; trust me it’s harder than it looks. I think maybe an oak shape might make more sense than this evergreen.

BRILLIANT MARKETING IDEA – FREE!! Anyone producing a liquid that will be placed in a glass bottle – pay the extra bucks to come up with a novel color, esp. red. Bottle trees are a booming, if not a blooming, business. Collectors gladly pay extra for uniquely colored bottles enabling you to charge more for your product, and they’ll buy it, whether they like your product or not.

For more images of bottle trees check out: http://www.flickr.com/groups/bottletree/pool/

*Special thanks to Felder Rushing for patiently and humorously answering all my questions and sharing his bottle tree photographs, some of which were taken (gasp!) in New England and the New England Flower Show.

For more info on Felder Rushing or Bottle Trees, visit his delightfully mind- bending website at: http://www.felderrushing.net

©2012 by Alison B. Colby-Campbell

13 responses to “EMBRACE PROHIBITION (Bottle Trees – A New Englander’s View)

  1. Lisa Cody Lessard

    Alison, I like this article! It lends to my artistic side and my love of colored glass, I have lots of colored bottles in my windows and a few stained glass pieces also a favorite. Your article brought to mind our (well I and some fellow classmates will remember) highschool days (only a very few mind you) spent skipping a class and venturing out behind the school to “The path” and into “Can Land” … 🙂 Did you ever go there? I was intrigued by the sight of it from the get-go … tall trees strewn with cans and bottles, launched up into the trees in a bolo fashion with strings. There were hundreds of them, I often wondered who had thought of it and how old it was?
    Also a favorite antiquing spot in Stratford (sp?) NH is “Seconds to go” somewhat off the beaten path, the owner (much beloved) Mr. Feeney has since passed away but I believe his wife and daughter still keep it going. It has a large barn “decorated” with hundreds of old glass bottles hung on strings, when there’s a breeze they act like chimes. Lovely!

    • Lisa – I never went to Canland – man I was too well behaved for my own good. Maybe I’ll check with the nieces to see if it still exists and if they know about it, I’ll be worried about them! Glad you liked it and post pics if you go forward with your own bottle tree. BTW Lisa you were my 400th comment – so thanks for participating.

      • Lisa Cody Lessard

        Truthfully I only skipped school a few times .. ? Stanely Robinson (beloved by me) was a family friend of my fathers, both taught school together in the same school system years before, in fact Stanley took us on many adventures, mountain climbing, canoeing, camping etc.. the
        y are some of my fondest memories .The last time I got caught was skipping school with Rick Macera, we took his family Jag to the beach …. 🙂 Mr. Harbor was very entertaining, very kind, and not so over the top about my skipping a class, very grateful!!

  2. ” —” is in the eye of the beholder, my friend. i had a woman look me in the eye recently and told me she thought bottle trees were ‘tacky’ (forget the HUNDREDS I have photographed adorning upscale landscapes – valid as any naked goddess statue!), and for once I not only had a quick reply, but also lost my Southern upbringing and SAID it: “Yes ma’am, but did you know you have glass beads strung on wires… hanging out of holes in your ears!!?!”
    There. I said it.
    Bottle trees are typically made from already-dead trees (de-horned Christmas trees, etc.), not from live ones. And they are no less environmentally friendly than, say, concrete statues, resin gnomes, or Victorian urns…
    And though they may not repel bad spirits (any more than ‘God bless you’ which has the same Middle Eastern origins, for the same reasons), what they are to most folks is simple: WE ARE SIMPLY HOLDING PRETTY GLASS UP TO THE SKY, to enjoy the colors better…
    But thanks for commenting on this wonderful, world-side vernacular art form…
    Now go fondle your earrings!

  3. I would take issue with objection #3.  As far as I could tell, your “nearby” bottle tree collection used no trees, but apparently either wrought iron or rebar rods.  Clearly you don’t need to use a tree for a bottle tree.   Besides, I think there’s a certain “folk art” charm to well done bottle trees.

  4. Last night I went to a fabulous dinner party in a tony neighborhood. 14 women were in attendance, many of whom had read this blog, and of those, 3 were eyeing the empties with an envy I’ve only ever reserved for dessert….until we discussed why and then it was five! Serious discussion ensued about how to circumvent the strict historic district regulations. What have I done?

  5. I found red and fuschia bottles at Christmas Tree Shop for a very reasonable price and had them in my shopping cart almost to the checkout when I realized I didn’t have any cash on me….but they were almost mine for a little something in the garden…was this a message from a higher authority?

  6. I am not sure of the history of bottle trees but believe it is a ‘southern thing’. Since I am from the north I will just have to play along. Bottle trees are a fun and very colorful way to add some light and change to your garden. Not to mention they are a great way to display collectible bottles-out of the house. If you are like me you probably have too many collectables within the confines of your home and may want to expand beyond your four walls. Here are two pictures of bottle trees. One belongs to me and the other belongs to my good gardening friend Gerrianne. She was kind enough to allow me to use a picture here. We both agreed bottle trees are a winter subject.My new friend the Saint said that in Germany the Germans would put bottles over pear blossoms in the spring. The pears would then grow within the bottle and conform to the shape of the bottle. At first he thought this is what these bottles were for. He did like the bottle tree much better than the bowling balls, but like I said gardens are individual and not everyone will garden in the same way. There are no two gardens the same nor are there two individuals the same and that is OK.

    • Thank you for commenting on my post. Truth be told I am growing fonder of bottle trees all the time and I’ve started looking more closely at my recycling bin…I’ll post a photo if I succumb to their charms completely

  7. How do you display your plates..I love your display if blue….

    • Hi Donna,
      I am not the bottle glass artist/gardener just an admirer and a photographer but I zoomed in on my photos and it appears she made or found some kind of rebar pole and then manipulated wire arms around that to create a plate stand much like you would use on your wall to hang plates, in another place it looked like she combined a metal cookbook stand or sheet music stand to hold the plate. I hope that helps. Alison

  8. I have a bottle tree in my yard. My husband made it for me. I love my tree and will be adding more bottles to it. Enjoyed your site.

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