All my life, I’ve randomly caught glimpses of bottle trees—in California’s Berkeley Hills, tucked away on a side street in Long Beach, at a junk-lover’s paradise in the Las Vegas valley and on a forgotten intersection off of the trolley’s route in New Orleans. Of course I’ve happened upon them on Georgian backroads from Hiram clear down to Thomasville. And just this past weekend, I saw one at a house on N Crest Road on the way to National Military Park in Chattanooga. Before spotting the one in Chattanooga, I’d never thought anything of them. I just supposed that a lot of people across the country had a favorite blue-bottled liquor they liked to share with their tree.
Then while researching the origin of the black-eyed peas and collard greens tradition on New Year’s Eve, I discovered that bottle trees were a “Southern tradition.” Nowadays, anytime, I here the phrase “Southern tradition,” I pretty much know that Black folks had something to do with it and the true origins are most likely African. Lo and behold, bottle trees aren’t just a pretty garden art thing carried out by eccentric blue-eyed lady imbibers with bad hips.
As Paul and William Arnett’s Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South Vol. II explains:
The African American tradition of hanging bottles on trees to trap or repel evil forces has parallels all over Africa, where charms, plates and bottle-like gourds perform similar functions. They are also used to scare off trespassers. This art is not only used to embody aesthetic values, but also to honor and communicate with the supernatural.
It is believed that evil spirits are drawn to the bottles’ bright colors and become trapped inside the bottles at dusk. Once day breaks the next morning, the sunlight destroys the evil bound inside. This tradition and lore has been traced back to the ninth century!
And according to this excerpt from SFGate.com:
The bottle tree tradition traveled to Trinidad, the Bahamas and eventually to the American mainland. In “Bighearted Power,” his essay in “Keep Your Head to the Sky: Interpreting African American Home Ground,” Thompson says the most important bottle tree clusters today are in east Texas, southeastern Arkansas and southern Alabama.
So the next time, you come across a bottle tree, shout out the ancestors and know you’re beholding ancient African magick at work.