If you are to go through parts of the American South today, particularly in the rural areas, you are likely to notice the unique practice of bottle trees in backyards of homes.
Usually made from blue bottles, placing bottles on trees is to essentially trap evil spirits and keep them out of a home.
The bottle tree tradition has been in existence since the 18th Century, and historians have linked it to enslaved Africans originating from the Kongo/Angola coast of West-Central Africa.
“Adherents believed that evil spirits would become entranced by the spectrum of colours and lights reflected on and inside the bottles by the sun, thus trapping the spirit for eternity. The howling noise the bottles created in the wind were said to be from the tormented and trapped spirits. Even the colours used for the bottles conveyed symbolic meanings. Cobalt blue bottles were noted as being particularly potent in repelling or trapping spirits,” according to the Encyclopedia of African American History, Volume 1.
It added that in certain instances, bottles were corked and thrown into bodies of water to “excise the evil spirit” while in other areas, the bottles were exposed to sunlight to destroy the spirits.
In pre-colonial West-Central Africa, it is believed that items such as conch shells and terra cotta pots were used instead of glass bottles.
In recent years, the practice of bottle trees, which was prevalent in the black South, especially in Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, has largely disappeared.
For those who still practise it, particularly in Appalachia or parts of the American South, the bottles are hung from the tree with twine or stuck right on the ends of the branches, according to Learn Regions.
An article by Richard Graham said the trees do have more magical properties beyond the colour of bottles placed on them: “Other elements and ideas incorporated into bottle trees suggest the efficacy of its magical properties, at least according to the more mystically minded makers.
“On their trees, the throats of the bottles are likely to be greased with fat to facilitate the capture of evil spirits fatally attracted to the coloured glass. Once sucked inside, it is believed that the spirit cannot escape, the morning sun sealing their fate.”
Since the 18th Century, cedar trees have been mostly used because the branches pointed toward heaven. Nevertheless, any tree could be used.
Blue has also been the most preferred colour with some associating it with spirits and ghosts in Southern folk magic. Others even believe that blue bottles contain healing qualities.
Currently, in the American South, the bottle tree practice has transformed significantly, as the introduction of Christianity and other cultural forces have “played a role in alterations in meanings and practices.”
For those who would like to have a bottle tree, here’s how to create one:
- Start collecting bottles – multicoloured or cobalt blue. You can use “wine bottles, apothecary bottles, or even the blue glass ones that products like milk of magnesia used to come in.”
- Wash the bottles.
- Place them on the ends of the branches of any tree you want. Sources say you can use a collection of large limbs tied together, or even a dead tree.