Bottle trees branch out from South

Staff and wire reportsAugust 30, 2013 

Bottle trees have long been a part of Southern culture. Eudora Welty wrote about them in her short story “Livvie,” and a photograph she took in 1941 shows a cabin in rural Mississippi with bottle trees in the yard.

Lately they’ve been proliferating in other areas of the country thanks largely to the Internet and social-networking sites like Pinterest that are spreading the idea to new audiences, according to Felder Rushing, the celebrated Southern gardener who recently published “Bottle Trees … And the Whimsical Art of Garden Glass.”

Northerners have historically been less expressive with garden ornamentation than Southerners, Rushing said.

That’s something Deidre Betancour, of Akron, Ohio, has discovered since a friend gave her a bottle tree more than a decade ago. Betancour continues to get puzzled looks and wisecracks about the display, but she keeps it because she likes it.

“It just made me laugh,” she said.

More people across the country, especially baby boomers who were raised with more interest in color and self-expression than previous generations, are embracing quirkier art forms such as bottle trees, Rushing explained.

“It’s an easy way to get people to express themselves. … The garden needs something to personalize it,” said Rushing, who lives in Jackson, Miss.

A bottle tree can be made from a real tree – dead or alive – or using tree-shaped form that has a frame and branches. They can be made using pegs or posts, or pretty much any form the creator can dream up. Blue wine bottles are often used, but any kind or color of bottle is fair game.

“Bottle trees are a concept,” said Rushing. And, as such, no rules govern their creation, he adds.

Smithsonian Gardens website says American bottle trees first gained popularity among Creole comunities in Southern states from Texas to South Carolina.

But their history goes back for centuries, since shortly after hollow glass vessels first appeared in Egypt and Mesopotamia around 1600 B.C., and stories started circulating about spirits living in them, a belief that likely grew from the whistling sound made by the wind blowing over the bottles’ mouths, Rushing said. Legend has it that the bottles lure and trap evil spirits to keep them from entering a house. The roaming spirits are said to be destroyed by the morning’s sunlight.

Glass garden decorations may take a number of forms, including witch balls, gazing globes and bottle trees.

Glass used on early bottle trees was often blue because of the color’s association with water, which was thought to repel spirits, or “haints,” Rushing said. In fact, “haint blue” is still a popular hue for trim and porch ceilings in the South, particularly in Charleston.

It was the “evil spirits” part of the story that first intrigued 10-year-old twins Callie and Emma Williamson of Hillsborough, who learned about bottle trees while reading novels by John Claud Bemis, a children’s book author and North Carolina’s Piedmont Laureate for 2013. Bottle trees appear in several of Bemis’s books, mentioning their role in “driving away evil spirits,” said Erika Williamson, the girls’ mother.

The girls enlisted their mother to search for local examples.

“So we started driving around to look and try to find them,” Williamson said.

Since last summer, the family has identified more than 30 bottle trees in Orange County and mapped them on their blog, hillsboroughbottletrees.wordpress.com.

The Williamsons have heard lots of explanations for the popularity of bottle trees in their community, but none so far has involved the need to deter evil spirits.

“We’re of the opinion that it’s just a very accessible art form and anyone can do it,” Erika Williamson said.

“It allows for a lot of creativity. People seem to love the color and light and expressiveness.”

Not all bottle trees are do-it-yourself projects.

Wisconsinite Jerry Swanson had never heard of bottle trees until he discovered them while searching for ideas on how he could use some blue bottles he owned. He made his first one in 2001, then turned it into a business.

Swanson now crafts bottle trees from iron in a variety of styles and sells them through a company he formed, Bottle Tree Creations

His diverse designs include bottle tree “saplings” featuring straight metal rods topped with individual bottles, a tree with bottles that spiral around a center post, and small bottle sculptures shaped like turkeys and peacocks. He even incorporates such accents as birdbaths and gazing globes and makes a bottle tree that doubles as a plant hanger.

Swanson has sold his bottle trees to customers in 45 states, three Canadian provinces and even Great Britain.

He attributes their growing reach to the increasing popularity of gardening and people’s desire for something different to put in their gardens.

But bottle trees are still a novelty in the North, he said, “something most Midwesterners don’t come across. It’s nothing you’ll see down the street.”

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