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!


Follow Digging via Email

To have Digging delivered directly to your inbox, just click the Follow button at bottom-right. It’s super easy, and as a subscriber you won’t have to check in to see if I’ve posted lately.

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.

23 Responses

  1. I have a bottle tree on a form we purchased online. There are blue, green, and amber bottles. I love it! The deer don’t eat it, and it blooms all year. And just maybe, it helps keep the haints away.

  2. LostRoses says:

    Strangely, I saw my first bottle tree in Alaska! Then I saw yours on your blog and it turned my intrigue into the reality of owning one myself. Love your newest one!

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Thanks, LostRoses. I’d love to know what the Alaskan interpretation of a bottle tree looks like. Also, can they leave their bottles outside all winter? I guess as long as water can’t get inside them they can. —Pam

  3. Margo says:

    I love the pictures. I first saw a bottle tree on a garden tour (the one in south Austin that you have a picture of!) and decided I had to have one. I don’t weld and didn’t have the money at the time to buy one so I placed different lengths of rebar though out my plumbago bed. Dressed with blue bottles, I call them my bottle ‘weeds’.

  4. peter schaar says:

    I love these, especially your stylized bottle Agave flower. Speaking of folk art in the garden, have you seen the bottle cap house in Houston? I’d love to see a blog on that one!

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Are you thinking of the beer can house, Peter? I have seen it, actually, although I didn’t write a post about it. —Pam

      • peter schaar says:

        Yes, Pam, that’s the one. How about a folk art blog featuring the beer can house, bottle trees, tire planters a la Felder Rushing, and other things (where is that bigger than life size sculpture of Audrey from LSOH?)?

  5. I don’t have a bottle tree myself but I do enjoy seeing all the different versions and interested in the history. I saw a pic on Flicker of garden paths (maybe a labrinth) using blue bottles as well as green, amber and clear. It was beautiful as the lined bottles made narrow raised beds between the paths. This garden might be in Austin and I’m wondering if you know of it. I would love to see more pics of it or even have a looks see in person.

    As always I enjoy all your post.

  6. Oddly enough it has taken me a long time to embrace the idea of a bottle tree. Glass in the garden, at least in my garden, doesn’t seem to last very long. I am the proverbial bull… However looking at all of these stylized bottle trees they give me the urge to try one.

  7. rickii says:

    What fun to learn the history of bottle trees. I have seen many manifestations of them in garden visits over the years. Some are elaborate creations by artists, some follow the folk art tradition of making art with materials on hand. Your stylized version is especially appealing to me. I like the idea of lights (haven’t seen that before) in an area used after dark. My bottle bed is a cluster of blue bottles on rebar of varying lengths stuck in the ground. It sparkles in snow and lights up the dark woodland until late spring, when the ferns obscure most of it. Little did I know that it was keeping the haints away.
    At the coast, I saw a whole front yard paved with multi-colored bottles buried so that only the bottoms showed. It was spectacular.

  8. Melody McMahon says:

    Pam, what timing to see this post today! Last week my friend Jeannette told me about a bottle tree she wanted from our favorite nursery in San Antonio called Shades of Green. She thought it was too large to fit into her car and I assured her it would fit in mine, so off we went! She had collected blue bottles for years and I even donated one from the bottles I use for hose guides in my garden. It makes me smile just thinking about how happy she is to finally have a bottle tree!

  9. Alison says:

    I love your ocotillo bottle tree. I do have a bottle tree in my garden, you can see pics of it here:

  10. Robin says:

    I don’t actually have a bottle tree, I have what I call bottle art instead. I simply have rebar poked into the ground with colored bottles on top of each one. I’ve been thinking about switching over to a bottle tree once I tire of this display. Here’s the link to an old post showing how they look. They look especially nice and colorful in the winter with snow on each one.

  11. Renee says:

    I don’t have a bottle tree, although i’ve thought about getting one. i’ve always liked pictures of your stylized one. I have been collecting bottles, but i also can’t decide whether they should all be the same or not… But i’ll keep looking at all these inspiration pictures!