BOTTLE TREE HISTORY
Compiled by Felder Rushing
NOTE: For bottle tree and other "garden glass" images I have taken all over the world,
including some from my visit to Elmer Long's Bottle Forest in California's Mojave Desert
and an entire GLASS FOREST I discovered in Germany's Bavarian Alps, click this image:
One of Felder's 14 bottle trees
Here is a short history of bottle trees, and a little on the color “blue.” I have done MUCH research, and have distilled it down to this (leaving out many colorful extra references).
My new book on bottle trees and other whimsical garden glass (including many dozens if images taken all over the world) will be available in early 2013... and it has a VERY complete history of bottle trees, gazing globes, witch balls, and much, much more, plus anecdotes and quotes from famous people who appreciate garden individuality.
"POOR MAN’S STAINED GLASS"
For years I subscribed to the common thread of lore that dates the origin of bottle trees to the Congo area of Africa in the 9th Century A.D. But after extensive research, I find that bottle trees and their lore go back much farther in time, and originate farther north. And that the superstitions surrounding them were embraced by most ancient cultures, including European.
Although glass was made deliberately as early as 3500 B.C. in northern Africa, hollow glass bottles began appearing around 1600 B.C. in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Clear glass was invented in Alexandria around 100 A.D.
Soon around then, tales began to circulate that spirits could live in bottles - probably from when people heard sounds caused by wind blowing over bottle openings. This led to the belief in "bottle imps" and genies (from the Arabic word djinn) that could be captured in bottles (remember Aladdin and his magic lamp? This story originated as an Arabian folk tale dating back thousands of years, even before clear glass was invented). Somewhere in there, people started using glass to capture or repel bad spirits. The idea was, roaming night spirits would be lured into and trapped in bottles placed around entryways, and morning light would destroy them.
Incidentally, you will run into folks who refuse to put up bottle trees because of the connection to pagan superstitions. HOWEVER, before people learned about cold germs and allergies, early Greeks and Romans thought that sneezes were bad spirits being expelled. When someone sneezed, nearby people would snap their fingers to keep the spirit out of their own bodies, and say "Jupiter preserve you" to keep the spirit from reentering the sneezer. Because superstitions were so hard to stop, and pagan festivals were so ingrained, an early pope in the 3rd century A.D. (the same one who decided to "go with the flow" and put Christmas on the pagan winter solstice festivities, and Easter on the pagan spring fertility festivals) changed "Jupiter preserve you" to "God bless you."
All this is well-established, not lore. So, like it or not, or even if they aren’t aware of this historical fact, folks who say “God bless you” (or similar salutations) are performing an ancient pagan superstitious ritual. And they get indignant when this is pointed out - yet they continue to assume that those of us who love colorful bottle trees are somehow involved in pagan practices! Sheesh.
Anyway, the bottle imp/bad spirit thing was carried down through sub-Saharan Africa and up into eastern Europe, and eventually imported into the Americas by African slaves – and Germans, Irish, and other superstitious folk who among other things put hex symbols on barns and celebrated May Day and Halloween. Europeans brought "witch balls" (hollow balls with an opening in the bottom to capture witches) and "gazing balls" to repel witches.
Nowadays, bottle trees are mostly used as interesting garden ornaments that glisten in the sun, and the use of colorful glass garden art is on the upswing, as any visit to upscale garden shows (including the Chelsea Flower Show in London) will prove.
Barbara Eden remains
the best-known genii of all times!
BOTTLE TREES ARE CONCEPTS - NOT RECIPES
While I have seen incredible garden ornaments made from bottles and other forms of glass, there seems to be little or no difference between bottle trees. All are simple variations on the same theme: bottles on sticks. Bottle trees - often referred to as "poor man's stained glass" or "garden earrings"- can be made of dead trees or big limbs tied together (crape myrtles and cedars have the best natural forms), wooden posts with large nails, welded metal rods, or bottles simply stuck on the tines of an upended pitch fork or a small number of rebar rods stuck in the ground...
Most are festooned with bottles of many colors, but the blue bottles are considered "best" )blue has LONG been associated with ghosts, spirits, and "haints" - there is even a blue paint used around windows and doors of cottages to repel spirits called "haint blue" - really (see more notes below). But one of my favorites is a tree made of a blend of just green bottles and clear bottles - it looks great and sparkles in the sun without being a poke in the eye to fussy neighbors.
In some of my garden books I coined a Latin name for bottle trees - Silica transparencii (for “clear glass), along with whimsical “cultivars” including 'Milk of Magnesia' blue, the mixed-color 'Kaleidoscope Stroke', and even a rare one called 'Texas Bluebonnet' (lower half is all green bottles, capped with blue bottles at the top).
There is much, much more to the story, but this should be enough to get your juices going.
Photo taken in the 1930s by Pulitzer Prize winner Eudora Welty
Here is a short excerpt from Eudora Welty's short story Livvie:
"Out front was a clean dirt yard with every vestige of grass patiently uprooted and the ground scarred in deep whorls from the strike of Livvie's broom. Rose bushes with tiny blood-red roses blooming every month grew in threes on either side of the steps. On one side was a peach tree, on the other a pomegranate.
Then coming around up the path from the deep cut of the Natchez Trace below was a line of bare crape-myrtle trees with every branch of them ending in a colored bottle, green or blue.
There was no word that fell from Solomon's lips to say what they were for, but Livvie knew that there could be a spell put in trees, and she was familiar from the time she was born with the way bottle trees kept evil spirits from coming into the house - by luring them inside the colored bottles, where they cannot get out again.
Solomon had made the bottle trees with his own hands over the nine years, in labor amounting to about a tree a year, and without a sign that he had any uneasiness in his heart, for he took as much pride in his precautions against spirits coming in the house as he took in the house, and sometimes in the sun the bottle trees looked prettier than the house did..."
For more on the history and development of ornamental glass, here are some great links:
Corning Museum of Glass - its complete reference
Chemistry of Glass
COBALT BLUE - Favored for bottle trees, but named after German gnomes
For some very interesting reasons, the color of choice for bottle trees has long been blue. While most experts disagree on how or even if, when cultural biases are taken out of testing, colors affect humans psychologically, many references agree that blue is a universally relaxing, calming color.
Blue glass can be made from adding copper oxides to molten glass, but for over five thousand years the most widespread colorant has been cobalt, a shiny, gray, brittle metal found in copper and nickel ores. Ingots of cobalt glass have been recovered from Minoan shipwrecks dating from as long ago as 2700 BC, and a cobalt-blue Persian glass necklace has been dated to BC 2250. Cobalt glazes have been found in Egyptian tombs of that period as well. And in 79 AD when Vesuvius blew itself to pieces, it buried cobalt glass objects with their owners. The Tang Dynasty of China used cobalt coloring as early as 600 AD.
Incidentally, while cobalt blue is easy to photograph, and shows up well on monitors, it is almost impossible to print on ordinary printers without serious color manipulations.
And get this: The name “cobalt” arises from the Greek by way of Medieval Germany, from the Schneeberg Moutains in the Erzgebirge region of Saxony (Germany) which was a silver mining area. The term “Kobald” (earliest records of the name is in 1335) applied to gnomes (spirits) which were thought to cause trouble in mines. The problems were actually due to cobalt interfering with the silver smelting and causing some respiratory problems with the miners, but the name stuck.
"Haint blue" is a vivid color commonly found on window shutters, doors, and porch ceilings all over the world, especially in Southeast United States, the Caribbean,and sub-Saharan Africa. More concept than specific color, it ranges from light or "baby" blue to periwinkle to blue-green.
By the way, some references claim that because lime was a common ingredient in early paints, it would keep flies, wasps, and other insects from landing on the painted surfaces, which is one reason ceilings were painted with it. Modern paints, which don't contain lime, are probably no longer effectiveas insect repellents based on color alone.
And the word "haint" is not an African term; it is from the same root word as "haunt" - most likely from the German/French/Middle English "hanter" (c.1330), which meant to stalk, to make uneasy, to inhabit. The verb was first recorded 1590 in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The noun meaning "spirit that haunts a place, ghost" is first recorded 1843, originally in stereotypical African-American speech.
Whatever your color of choice for bottle trees, know that it is from a long and proud tradition of keeping bad things - including the Blues - away.
..Witch Ball in Felder's Garden
and don't forget...