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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Research: Bottle Trees

Happy March! I love it when Moxie the cat stands in the windowsill and makes wild kitty throat noises at the birds in the Dogwood tree. It means Spring is in the air and I'm thinking about my garden. This spring, I'm thinking about adding some color, and I don't mean flowers. 

I've been in love with the idea of bottle trees for years. Their folklore, their beauty. You might remember seeing one in the movie "Because of Winn Dixie". It's actually a pretty good movie - it does star Dave Matthews, after all, and is a great glimpse of Southern life in a small town.

What is a bottle tree? 
The origin of the bottle tree can be traced back to Africa. It was believed that shiny objects usually placed on dead trees around a house would attract evil spirits away from the home. It was thought that the evil spirits favored colorful bottles, particularly blue glass. Once trapped in the bottle, the evil spirit dissipates when the morning sun strikes it. With the tragedy of the slave trade, the tradition found its way to North America and continued to evolve into the hanging of bottles in trees to "trap" the evil spirits. Over the years the bottle tree has become a very unique Southern gardening tradition. 

Southern writer, Eudora Welty used bottle trees in her short story "Livvie," which was set near the Old Natchez Trace, a famous colonial "road" used by Indians, merchants, soldiers, and outlaws between Natchez and Nashville, Tennessee. This photograph, like many others taken by Welty during her work for the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, appears in One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression: A Snapshot Album (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996). 
Here is a short excerpt from Eudora Welty's short story "Livvie":
Bottle tree photo by author Eudora Welty
"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..."
So... save me all your pretty colorful bottles, please!
Indoor Bottle Tree
Photo from Southern Style by Mark Mayfield
Image from Southern Living Magazine

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