Bottle trees, a Southern tradition that brightens the garden

Writer and teacher Paula Panich visited my garden a few weeks ago, and if I hadn’t already known she was from California by way of Connecticut — i.e., not a Southerner — she gave it away when she asked what was the story with the blue bottles displayed on rebar stakes.

“The bottle tree?” I asked, then launched into the history of this Southern tradition: how African slaves brought the practice to the South (a tradition that goes back even further, to ancient Egypt, according to Southern garden-culture expert Felder Rushing); how blue bottles were believed to trap evil spirits and keep them out of the house; how bottle trees as folk art spread throughout the South and beyond.

Today bottle trees in all their glorious variations are ubiquitous in Southern gardens, especially those with cottage-garden flair, being an easy way to add affordable sculpture and color. Blue bottles are most commonly used, but I see plenty of green, amber, and clear glass too. They jut from dead tree trunks, perch on nails hammered into branches, cap rebar or plastic stakes poked into the dirt, bristle from raw or painted wooden posts, and brighten metal “trees” purchased from garden shops.

Southerners today still call a certain shade of blue “haint blue” (“haint” comes from the word “haunt,” an evil spirit). Paula rightly pointed out that in the desert Southwest, in cities like Santa Fe and Taos, people paint window frames and doors blue for the same reason: a folkloric superstition that it keeps out bad spirits.

To banish any winter dreariness — at least for my Northern Hemisphere readers — let’s revisit some of my favorite bottle trees found in gardens in Texas and beyond (click the links for more pictures from each garden), starting with the multicolored bottle tree pictured above. It’s one of many charming ornaments in the display gardens at Antique Rose Emporium in Brenham, Texas.

This flower-shaped bottle tree makes a colorful focal point in the Hutto garden of Donna and Mike Fowler.

Carriage screws support an assortment of blue bottles on an arching mesquite branch in Lori Daul’s Austin garden.

A bottle tree in Vicki Blachman’s garden in Pflugerville holds insect hotels and Lucky Buddha beer bottles.

This bottle tree was part of a temporary folk art exhibit at the Wildflower Center in 2010.

Lucinda Hutson’s cantina garden in central Austin celebrates all things tequila, as evidenced by her tequila-bottle tree mulched with corks.

In the garden of Ann and Robin Matthews in southwest Austin, a blue bottle tree wrapped in colored lights anchors a circle-shaped vegetable garden.

Their next-door neighbor, Donnis Doyle, put a similar bottle tree out front to greet her guests.

At the Asheville, North Carolina, Garden Bloggers Fling, I visited Christopher Mello’s garden and saw a bottle tree that upped the ante with blue paint, bottles, and lights.

Occasionally I’ll encounter a bottle tree outside the South, like this version at Bella Madrona garden in Portland, Oregon. Chunks of cobalt glass emerge from the folds of a massive tree trunk — like the pig’s teeth in the wych elm of E. M. Forster’s Howards End.

In my own garden (and in my former garden as well), I’ve made a stylized bottle tree from a cedar post and regularly spaced lag screws. It reminded me of an agave bloom spike.

Photo by Lori Daul of The Gardener of Good and Evil

Not long ago, however, I was ready for a change and commissioned a rebar “ocotillo tree” from local metalworker Bob Pool. Looking out my office window, I enjoy it most in the afternoons, when the bottles glow with captured light.

So how about you? Have you ever seen a bottle tree, or do you have one of your own? I’d love to hear your bottle tree stories!


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Upcoming Events and News

Hold the Hose! Join me for my kick-off garden talk for my new book, The Water-Saving Garden, on February 27, at 10 am, at The Natural Gardener nursery in southwest Austin. My talk is called “Hold the Hose! How to Make Your Garden Water Thrifty and Beautiful,” and it’s free to the public. Afterward I’ll have books available for purchase and will be glad to autograph one for you! Dress for the weather, as the talk will be held in the big tent outside.

All material © 2006-2016 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Public plaza at San Antonio’s Pearl, an urban re-use neighborhood

Pearl mixed-use development

The old Pearl Brewery in San Antonio might have been razed, once its brewing days were over. Instead its century-old manufacturing buildings have been transformed into restaurants and even a boutique hotel and embraced by walkable streets lined with shops and apartment buildings. Public green spaces throughout the development invite one to sit and people-watch.

We visited Pearl one afternoon just before Christmas, after reading about it on Rock-Oak-Deer blog, and enjoyed a delicious dinner at Southerleigh. (Afterward we strolled the River Walk to see the holiday lights.) Pearl was lively with shoppers and diners and utterly charming with its restored old buildings, recycled industrial materials, and lush South Texas-style landscaping.

The main plaza, which sits in the shadow of the old brewery, feels European with cafe seating on a gravel “floor,” under a grid of new-planted trees that will one day provide welcome shade. Until then, umbrellas and an industrial-mesh arbor do the trick.

Notice that the plaza trees are not ghettoed off into circular beds of mulch but are planted cleanly in the floor of the plaza itself. I love this look. Board-formed concrete planters filled with agaves, palmettos, and bamboo muhly grass soften the expanse of gravel and lightly screen seating areas from each other.

Under the arbor, vines climb each metal post, trained on long sections of encircling rebar. Unlike the trees, they are set off in circular beds, probably because their more delicate stems require protection from people stepping on them.

I adore this industrial-chic arbor, which sparkles with twinkle lights in the evening. Hanging can lights provide additional illumination…

…and two Big Ass fans cool the space in warmer seasons.

Industrial relics from the old brewery are incorporated into the plaza, as well as throughout the development.

A closer view

I wonder what these used to be?

Designed by Austin’s own Christine Ten Eyck, Pearl’s landscaping is lush with dwarf palmettos, grasses, and other mostly native Texas plants. Drought- and heat-tolerant exotics like purple heart aren’t shunned either.

Bougainvillea, its flower-like bracts still colorful a few days before Christmas, climbs an industrial-mesh screen.

Pearl’s irrigation, I read, uses only wastewater from the buildings’ cooling towers, and the landscaping needs just one-fifth the water a typical commercial landscape would require. Rain gardens like this one keep runoff out of the city’s wastewater system and use plants to filter pollutants.

This sunken patio offers outdoor seating for diners at one of the restaurants.

An aqueduct runs from an old silo (now used for water storage?) across one side of the plaza and empties — when the water’s running; it was off during our visit — down a chain into a tiered fountain. I enjoyed the clever re-use of industrial materials to create a new version of a traditional Spanish courtyard fountain.

It must be pleasant to sit here on warmer days, with the fountain playing its cooling music.

The Culinary Institute of America is located here, but even so it was a surprise to see lettuces growing in old brewery tanks placed like window boxes along the campus building.

Pearl is located on the north end of the River Walk Hike & Bike Path. A 3-mile stroll along the San Antonio River takes you to the main River Walk downtown, or you can grab a water taxi and just enjoy the ride. Or maybe you won’t leave Pearl at all, but just sit in the plaza and enjoy the scene.

All material © 2006-2016 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Remember the Alamo for Christmas lights in San Antonio

We rolled down I-35 to San Antonio on Monday afternoon to see the famous Christmas lights along the River Walk. Naturally, we remembered the Alamo and made that our first stop.

A grand tree alight with clusters of colored bulbs and cascading ribbons, bedecked with oversized San Antonio Spurs ornaments, stood in the plaza in front of the Alamo. Surrounding live oaks, like ladies-in-waiting, glowed with long, draping strings of white lights.

A closer looks shows the basketballs and Spurs ornaments on the tree.

The Alamo itself, as befitting an historical shrine, was washed with light and adorned simply, with only a festive wreath on its door.

A quick stroll across the street and down a flight of stairs took us to the city’s famous River Walk: a magical underworld of bald cypress-lined sidewalks packed with cafe seating for the many restaurants, hotels, and shops built along the San Antonio River, which flows through downtown. For the holidays, colored strands of lights hang like beaded curtains from the majestic trees, and tourist boats motor slowly beneath them.

The lights were beautiful, but the sidewalks were very crowded, and I confess I got a bit Grinchy before we’d walked very far — in single-file, unable to talk to each other because it was so packed.

The thing to do, I imagine, would be to come early and grab a cafe table along the river, and just people-watch over a Tex-Mex dinner. Or come late for a romantic stroll with your honey. I’ll know next time. It really is quite beautiful.

I leave you with this final image of holiday lights, and I wish you all the peace and joy of the season, dear reader. See you again after Christmas!

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.