Blue Bottle Trees
by Terri L. French
I, like many from Huntsville, Alabama, am a transplant. Yes, I’m one of “those” Yankees — the ones that stay. I’ve lived in north Alabama for 23 years. My “you guys” have long since morphed into “y’alls.” But, I’m not, nor most likely ever will be, totally acclimated to Southern culture. I learn new things every day.
For instance, there’s a lady down the road from me who has colorful glass bottles jutting from a tree in her yard. I’d never seen such a thing. Was it whimsical yard art, or did the tree have a drinking problem? Being a curious sort, I went home and spent three hours on the Internet researching the origins of the mysterious “bottle tree.” For you other transplants and uninformed indigenous types, here is what I found.
Like many of the South’s oldest and most colorful customs, the bottle tree tradition was brought to this country by African slaves and continued by Southern African American families and white rural folk.
What is now more of a decorative yard or garden feature was created for a paranormal purpose. According to legend, colorful bottles were talisman worn by trees. Once the spirits ventured inside the bottles they were trapped and then destroyed by morning sunlight. It’s told the howls and moans of the despairing ghosts can be heard when the wind blows through the trees. A variation of the legend tells that the people would cork the bottles in the morning in order to trap spirits who slipped inside during the previous night. Then, they would throw the bottles away.
Blue was the favored color of the original bottles—more specifically “haint” blue, which is close to the cobalt blue of Milk of Magnesia bottles or the Blue Nun wine many of us Baby Boomers drank in the ‘80′s. The history of haint blue is said to come from the Gullah/Geechee people, a community with ties to the enslaved Africans from the sea islands off South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. According to the Gullah/Geeche culture, this shade of blue represents water, which spirits can not pass over.
Even in Alabama and other Southern states, if you take a drive in the country, you are liable to see haint blue paint used on doors and porches for the same reason it’s used on bottle trees—to keep those scary spooks, hags and boogers at bay. It supposedly has the added benefit of repelling pesky insects (perhaps blue bottle flies?).
While some folks adhere to the bottle tree folklore, others just think they are pretty—sort of a poor man’s stained glass. Modern versions are made from metal or iron. My own iron rendition currently holds only one blue bottle, but still keeps the spooks out of my garden better than that silly gnome (though it doesn’t seem to repel tomato-nibbling rodents too well). Whether you are out to harness a haint or simply snare some sunshine, a blue bottle tree might be the perfect ornament for your yard.
Terri L. French is a poet/writer, licensed massage therapist and barista living in Huntsville, Alabama. A member of the Haiku Society of America, the Alabama Writer’s Conclave and the Baker’s Dozen Writers Group, her articles and poetry have appeared in The Valley Planet, Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine, Heron’s Nest, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and DailyHaiku. Her book, “A Ladybug on My Words,” can be found on Amazon.