That's a bottle tree, shot on my phone today at Slotin Folk Fest 2010. This is an annual folk art show that I dearly love, but generally miss, because I'm usually up in the Adirondacks and Berkshires at this time in August.
I'm fascinated by bottle trees, and by southern folk art -- which for me is the ultimate intersection of southern weirdness, mental illness, faith and fancy.
What's a bottle tree, and why do I want one as garden art?
It's pure hoodoo. African folk magic. The shine and color of bottle trees are meant to attract and then trap evil spirits.
According to Texas folklorist, Dr. Mary Jo Clendenin, "the color blue wards off evil and brings good luck. Some folk go even father to capture the spirits by greasing the throats of the bottles with fat to better entrap the evil spirits. Once sucked inside, it is believed that the spirits cannot escape, the morning sun seals them inside. When a strong wind whips through the bottle tree causing it to emit a low whistle or moan, that signifies the death of the imprisoned spirits. During the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee, families where the disease was raging hung blue medicine bottles on tree limbs outside their homes to ward off spirits associated with the plague.
Even Eudora Welty writes about bottle trees:
"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." --- Eudora Welty
Shangri La Botanic Garden, Orange Texas (photographs by Greg Grant)
Enchanting isn't it. What a great way to recycle your glass. This Squidoo page has great information about bottle trees, including good instructions on how to make one using a real tree, a tree branch, or rebar -- the material favored by folks in the modern south like Bottle Tree Bob in Alabama.