In the American South, bottle trees are a common sight. Originally, bottle trees were spells from the folk magic of hoodoo. The idea is, malevolent spirits are always wandering around in the air, and to keep them from getting into your home or business and causing strife and other problems, bottles should be strategically placed just outside the door to “catch” them. The easiest way to do this is to thread an empty bottle on the twig of a tree branch near the door to your home or business. Once you have enough bottles to satisfy your paranoia you have a bottle tree. (Nowadays, trees aren’t often growing right next to a door, so wrought iron made to resemble branches is frequently used instead).
This idea is not unique to this region, of course. Bottle spells are still in use in Africa and other places, and world folklore abounds with instances of spirits caught in bottles or other receptacles (think of the genie in Aladdin’s lamp). Go to any tourist gift shop anywhere in the United States and you will likely find the “dream catcher,” a Native American folk object that allegedly captures the spirits that cause bad dreams by entangling them in a web of yarn stretched on a hoop that is hung near the sleeper’s bed.
As for bottle trees, blue is by far the preferred color for the bottles, and I don’t think that’s strictly due to aesthetics. The color blue has a long association with the spirit world: genies and Hindu gods were thought to have bluish skin, the Celts and Picts revered blue as a holy color, and so on. So, cobalt blue bottles are especially powerful at attracting and capturing spirits, just like light attracts moths.
Now, most bottle trees I’ve seen are not flagrant attempts at folk magic, but simply nice expressions of “folk art.” So I’m left uncertain as to whether the people who display them are just being cute or are really serious about it. Maybe they don’t know themselves. Sometimes, especially with educated, professional-type people, they explain that of course they don’t really believe, but, it does no harm, so why not, just in case. . . which pretty much sums up all of our folkways, I think. This picture shows a tree that is most likely just art.
I was traveling through the Arkansas wine country awhile back (yes, Arkansas has vineyards). Southern wineries specialize in fruit wines like plum and elderberry, a kind of meadow shrub that produces a fantastic but sweet wine from its round berries. My favorite above all, however, is muscadine wine, a sweet and spicy red wine made from the wild grapevine Vitis rotundifolia that grows all over the American South and is also cultivated. And so I stopped at several wineries near Altus, Arkansas just off of I-40 to find some muscadine, and discovered this above the door of one of the shops. Granted, in a winery you expect “wine bottle art,” but since the wrought iron resembles vine branches and it is right above the door, and all the bottles are facing down in a “catch” position, I’m certain this is a bona fide bottle tree. No doubt the proprietors don’t want their interstate visitors bringing bad vibes into their shop.
- Suffolk ‘bottle trees’ branch out to celebrate tradition (hamptonroads.com)