Bottle trees, an American Deep South custom, have their beginnings on African soil. They are a Kongo-derived tradition dating back to around the ninth century and were introduced to America as early as the seventeenth century as a consequence of the Atlantic slave trade. While the exact origin of bottle trees is unknown, the most probable beginning is in African graveyards as a funereal ritual. Using various glass objects, including bottles, to decorate the burial sites of the dead is a long-standing tradition. Bottles were laid either in a symmetrical pattern on the site or randomly around the borders of the site, thus creating a horizontal bottle tree. If a tree draped over the grave, colorful bottles were hung from the tree’s limbs. The grave decorations protected the dead person’s talents from escaping into a space of nothingness.
This tradition carried over into the American South, where many African American graves have such decorations. Bottle trees also have long stood in the yards of African Americans, and the kaleidoscopic wonders eventually made their way into yards of Euro-Americans. The belief is that sunlight dancing through the colored bottles will lure evil spirits into the bottles, entrapping them and protecting the home. Tradition states that the sound created when the wind blows through the necks of the bottles is the evil spirits howling or moaning. In addition to capturing evil spirits, bottle trees are believed to protect homes from thieves or other intruders. Sometimes the bottles house dirt from someone’s grave.
Although many types of trees are used in making bottle trees, the most widely used is the cedar, which is resistant to decay and favored for its heavenward-stretching limbs. Colored bottles are hung on the ends of the limbs, creating a magical delight when the sunlight plays among the bottles. Blue bottles, though scarce, are favored and prized for their increased ability to ward off evil and keep fever from one’s home.
Mississippi is one of three states located in an area known as bottle tree territory. No wonder, then, that bottle trees have been spotted in many Mississippi communities, including Oxford, Pontotoc, Sarepta, and Madison. One of the earliest pictorial depictions of a bottle tree in the United States was provided by Mississippi author and photographer Eudora Welty in a depression-era photo taken in Simpson County. The Mississippi bottle tree shows up in other artwork. James W. Bailey, a Mississippi-born photographer, created “wind painting,” a distinctive naturalistic art practice inspired by the bottle tree. The bottle tree constitutes an essential image in Welty’s 1943 short story, “Livvie.” The trees show up in The Celestial Jukebox (2005), by former Oxonian and Rowan Oak curator Cynthia Shearer. In addition, Kentucky artist Henry Dorsey modeled his art on the bottle tree after traveling through Mississippi.
The popularity of bottle trees has waned along with the belief that they serve as a talisman against evil spirits. Nonetheless, they persist because people enjoy their artistic appeal.
- Francis Edward Abernethy, ed., Folk Art in Texas (1985)
- H. Carrington Bolton, Journal of American Folklore (July–September 1891)
- William Ferris, ed., Afro-American Folk Art and Crafts (1983); Dan R. Goddard, San-Antonio Express-News (October 2006)
- Richard Graham, in Corners of Texas: Publications of the Texas Folklore Society, ed. Francis Edward Abernathy (1993)
- Ellen Orr, Mississippi Folklore Register (1969); Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (1983)