‘Like having outdoor stained glass windows’: Bottle trees serve as healing works of art


For the Recorder

Published: 07-31-2023 4:31 PM

I thought it sounded kind of crazy when my Phillipston friend Karen Perkins told me she was making a bottle tree in her yard. Karen is a horticulturalist, a well-known specialist for raising Epimedium plants and giving presentations to gardeners throughout the eastern states. She deals with natural and live plants. Why would she want to create a tree with bottles?

Well, she made one. I stopped by to see it and thought it was different and interesting but I wasn't too impressed. Then she told me her story.

Karen had a Horstmann's Silberlocke fir tree, a very fancy dwarf conifer with curved needles that are silvery white on the underside, needles that gave the tree a lovely effect. Karen had it for 25 years. She loved that special tree, it was so beautiful.

Then, for some unknown reason, it died last year. She didn't cut it down in the spring because a robin built a nest among the rusty-colored dead branches. While the robin was using it, she decided she didn't want to cut it down, she'd do something special with it.

“I decided to make a bottle tree out of it to honor it,” she said. She trimmed down the branches, just leaving stubs for the bottles.

Where to get the bottles? The recycling center at the Transfer Station. So she rummaged through the trashed glass and found beer and wine bottles to start her project.

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She will replace them as she finds ones with more interesting colors. She says a bottle tree is like having outdoor stained glass windows.

Being a horticulturalist, Karen knew about bottle trees and has seen them in many private and public gardens, especially in the South. Actually, they have an important place in American history.

Bottle trees were made in Africa for protection over 1,000 years ago. Bottles were hung in trees outside homes so the evil spirits that came at night would be lured into the colored bottles and then get trapped inside. If the wind should blow, the sound of it passing over the bottle openings was thought to be moaning from the trapped evil spirits. Then when morning came, the spirits were destroyed by the sunlight, or the bottles were cast into a river where the spirits would be washed away. Enslaved Africans brought the bottle tree tradition with them to the US.

Today, bottle trees are recognized as a meaningful form of historic folk art. There are beautiful bottle trees on the museum lawn of History Cambridge on Brattle Street in Cambridge to pay tribute to the enslaved people who lived and worked in the mansions on that street.

When I checked out bottle trees on the Internet, I learned they are ornaments that appear in gardens all over the world. There are sites that give instructions on how to create your own bottle tree on a dead tree, or by pounding pegs or long nails into a wooden post. Manufacturers make metal frameworks in many sizes and styles to display the bottles.

Bottle trees are said to serve many good purposes. They can protect the home from bad spirits, thieves, feelings of depression, even sterility. They bring good luck. They capture memories and the spirit of our ancestors. Blue bottles have healing qualities. 

I saw one that served as a trellis: bottles lined a pole for climbing flowers, and the bottles interspersed with the blossoms was beautiful.

I suggested to Gerry that the concept would be perfect for the morning glories that climb the telephone pole in front of our house.

Whatever purpose you choose, bottle trees bring beauty and something good.

My mother always told me, “There are always two ways to look at things.” Karen said, “I quit looking at bottles as throw-away containers and now look at them as art objects.”