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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Some of his REALLY cool photos of ‘Bottle Trees’ are here on his web page: