Bottle trees: A Southern tradition still in bloom

Blue bottles stand on a windowsill at the Kennett Square home of Alan Petravich and Eelekoa Kanamee. Outside, more bottle are attached to a yew in their yard.
Blue bottles stand on a windowsill at the Kennett Square home of Alan Petravich and Eelekoa Kanamee. Outside, more bottle are attached to a yew in their yard.
Posted: January 28, 2011

When Eelekoa Kanamee was growing up on the island of Kauai in Hawaii, he loved to race down to the beach after a big storm to hunt for bottles that had washed ashore.

The cobalt blue ones are his favorites to this day. It's a preference he shares with partner Alan Petravich, who had his own blue-bottle collection when the two met in California in 2004.

Both collectors work at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square now, and live on the grounds in a rental house they call "the blue-bottle cottage." It's named for their shared blue-bottle collection and for the bottle tree out in their garden.

The bottles are wedged, upside down, on the lower branches of a yew tree that is oddly bare on the bottom and green on top. "When the sun comes up, the blue actually glows. It looks liquid," says Kanamee, 41.

"It gets us through winter," adds Petravich, 42.

Bottle trees are a long-standing Southern thing, embedded in the life tapestries of African Americans, especially in the Mississippi Delta. Traditionally, live or dead crape myrtle and cedar trees were decorated with bottles - often blue Milk of Magnesia ones - intended to trap evil spirits and prevent them from entering the house.

But bottle trees are popping up in other parts of the country, as chic - or not so chic - garden art, made on a base of powder-coated steel, iron rebar, or odd pieces of metal.

Garden-supply companies sell them. So do entrepreneurs with catchy names like "Bottle Tree Bob." And enterprising artists and welders are reinterpreting the original form, using blue, green, amber, red, and clear bottles to create high-end trees, chandeliers, arbors, hummingbird feeders, fountains, even magazine racks.

"Bottle trees are whimsies to some folks, folk art to others, and an evocative art form to yet others," says Felder Rushing of Jackson, Miss., author of 15 gardening books, who has studied bottle trees in the United States and around the world for many years.

The newer ones may also represent what sculptor Virginia Maksymowicz describes as "outsider art" crossing over into more sophisticated forms. "The bottle may also be a representation of the human body with a spirit inside, which may be why artists like them so much," says Maksymowicz, associate professor of art at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster.

Whatever you call them, Dudley Pleasants of Glenwood, Miss., has discovered that money grows on bottle trees, too. Manager of a 4,000-acre corn, soybean, and cotton farm, Pleasants makes rolled-steel bottle trees on the side.

They've have gotten so popular, both inside and outside the South, that he says he is pressed for time as never before.

"I have a lot of men who call me and say, 'I got to have a bottle tree. My wife says she wants one,' and I understand," says Pleasants, also known as "the bottle tree man," who got into this sideline because his own wife wanted one.

Stephanie Dwyer, a metal artist from Jackson, didn't know what bottle trees were when she moved from California to Mississippi in 2006. She came to live on property her mother owned, to do her art, and immediately upon her arrival, an aunt asked her to make a bottle tree.

The aunt drove Dwyer around to show her some. "They had no soul. They didn't speak to me," recalls Dwyer, who designed her own, highly stylized version and moved on from there.

Bottle trees, arbors, and specialty items now account for 80 percent of her income. "Bottle trees are taking care of me," she says.

Several of her trees are displayed at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale, Miss., a mecca for blues musicians and fans.

Bill Talbot, co-owner of the inn, which he describes as a "B&B or beer and breakfast," says bottle trees "have been here all my life, part of the African American superstitions.

"We had so many haints on the compound, we had to try and control them," he says.

Haints are lost souls, angry ancestral spirits, and it's conceivable there are more than a few around Talbot's inn, which is on an old plantation. He rents out rooms and refurbished sharecroppers' shacks to visitors.

Dwyer's trees feature what he describes as "green, blue, red, clear, purple ones, whiskey bottles, Coke, Mountain Dew, medicine bottles, all kinds of weird bottles."

"The haints get up in those bottles and don't get out," Talbot says.

Although bottle trees are said to have arrived in the American South with West African slaves, the superstition is far older, according to Rushing.

Since hollow-glass vessels began appearing in Egypt and Mesopotamia around 1600 B.C., he says, most ancient cultures have believed that bad spirits - imps and genies, for example - could be captured in bottles placed around entryways, where they would be destroyed by morning's light.

The idea moved through sub-Saharan Africa to Eastern Europe and eventually to the Americas. But Rushing says German, Irish, and other European immigrants brought their own evil-spirit shibboleths in the form of witch-repelling gazing balls and hex symbols on barns.

Nowadays, Rushing says, gazing balls are garden art, hex symbols are tourist attractions, and bottle trees are "outdoor culture, garden accessories no different from hanging glass ornaments from earlobes."

At the "blue-bottle cottage," the bottle tree is an integral part of the garden.

In warm weather, it's enveloped by pink lilies and yellow verbascum or mullein, mauve geraniums and sunny nasturtiums. In cool weather, it stands out against the dried seed heads and snow.

At Longwood, Kanamee, nicknamed Koa, works on specialty chrysanthemum forms, such as topiaries. Petravich, who grew up on a dairy farm in Schuylkill County, is a research assistant; he breeds clivias, conducts plant trials, and studies ways to eliminate viruses from cannas and chrysanthemums.

Their blue-bottle collection easily tops 100 and, thanks to friends who drink certain types of wine, water, and vodka, continues to grow.

Some bottles get packed away in the attic. Others are set on the sills of curtainless windows in the house, blue sentries in square frames that catch the winter sun full on.

The light is clear and bright in morning and afternoon. In early evening, it glows a deep blue, utterly entrancing, perfect for ensnaring those disquieting haints.


Read gardening writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at


For Information

For more information about bottle trees, go to:

http://felderrushing.net/: Felder Rushing is an author and host of The Gestalt Gardener, a Mississippi Public Radio show. He has studied and photographed bottle trees in the United States and around the world for many years.

design.com/: Stephanie Dwyer is a metal artist in Mississippi who does untraditional bottle trees and other pieces using bottles.

http://www.bottletree.

com/: Since Bill Lipsey started selling bottle trees online in 2006, he says, business has nearly doubled every year. Most customers are from the South, but he has sold to people in every state, including Alaska and Hawaii. "It is definitely catching on all over the country," he says.

man.com/: Dudley Pleasants is a musician and manager of a 4,000-acre farm in Greenwood, Miss. He makes and sells bottle trees on the side, calling himself "the bottle tree man."

http://bottletreeman.blogspot.com/: Elmer Long calls himself "the bottle tree man," too, and he likely holds the record for sheer numbers of trees. He says he has more than 400 on his bottle-tree ranch, on Route 66 in Oro Grande, Calif., in the Mojave Desert. Long says he gets more than 200 visitors a day in spring and summer, including motorcycle clubs, artists, photographers, professors, and busloads of tourists. He scavenges through old, unofficial trash dumps in the desert for bottles, often adding funky items such as parking meters and wagon wheels to the unusual "trees" on his 2.4-acre property. Long has been making bottle trees since 2002, when he retired, after 31 years, from his job at a cement factory. "I think about bottle trees 24/7. It's crazy," he says.


Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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