Icon of the U.S. South: the bottle tree

Bottle tree at the Garden Cafe in Hempstead TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)I never met a bottle tree I didn’t like, and I keep sticking the bottles back onto my own backyard tree even though high winds regularly topple it over and send empty green wine, ginger ale and sweet vermouth bottles flying into a long-suffering nearby rose bush.

Yesterday I stumbled on the Garden Cafe and Brazos Bakery, a lovely little place between Austin and Houston in Hempstead, Texas (thank you, apps that help me find places to eat.)

Outside in their front garden was the pretty bottle tree that you see in the photo to the left.

When I shared this photo on Twitter, one of my Canadian followers asked me what it was for, and I realized that much of the world may find it a mystery as to why people would stick empty bottles onto dead tree trunks.

Other than smiling every time I see one – usually someplace in the U.S. Deep South – I hadn’t given the origins of the bottle tree much thought until recently, when it was mentioned in a book I’m reading, Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad.

The author says the trees may have started with the Gullah/Geechee people in coastal Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas. They were descendants of slaves who were following an African belief that evil follows straight lines. If you break up their path, the spirits can’t get to you.

From Hidden:

“If the ends of branches of a dead tree are inserted into the neck of empty bottles, preferably blue ones, roaming spirits will be attracted to the bottles when the sun strikes, causing the glass to flash, to glitter. The roaming spirit will then be trapped inside the bottle and rendered harmless to the living.”

If you’d like to start a blue bottle tree of your own, start with Riesling or Moscato wines (spirits to catch spirits!) and be sure to peel the labels off first. I keep thinking the weather will take care of mine and it hasn’t happened yet.

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