Bottle trees: a southern tradition with a spiritual past
For believers and ghost stories enthusiasts, the countryside of the American South is haunted and, given the history of the region, it is not hard to understand why.
For istance, If you travel across the South from the Lowcountry of Charleston to the Mississippi Delta you will find many superstitions about the dead, and you will see firsthand some of the ways that locals protect their homes from the souls that apparently have not moved on from our world and have chosen instead to wander in the night and not only.
One of the tools used to deal with evil spirits and wandering “haints”, as they are often called, is a bottle tree.
This curious custom can be traced to African slaves brought to the Charleston area in the 1700’s. The descendants of these slaves, known as the Gullah, still reside along the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia and they still practice many of the traditions taught to them through the generations.
Their ancestors were in fact some of the first people in the South to use bottle trees to protect their homes from evil spirits.
As a result, the tradition has spread and still today these unusual creations can be seen adorning yards from Virginia to Mississippi. Interestingly, these are a garden staple in many Southern addresses, yet they would be rare if not unheard of in Northern states. But not only: several Americans from Northern states such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey had never heard of bottle trees.
Actually, their origins date back thousands of years ago in 1600 BC Mesopotamia, Africa, and Egypt. In the 17th century African Americans brought this tradition to the US and began to place glass bottles on trees particularly crepe myrtles found throughout the South. The idea behind the bottle tree is relatively simple: originally, the branches of a crepe myrtle tree were cut short and empty bottles were placed upside down on the stubby limbs. Moreover, the crepe myrtle symbolized freedom from bondage and life in the Promised Land.
Nowadays you will see bottle trees that come in many forms, some made from real trees and other made from wrought iron or just simple wooden posts. But, apparently, it doesn’t really matter what is used for the tree as what is important are the bottles.
According to the legend, evil spirits are drawn to the bottles when the light of the moon reflects off the glass. When they enter the bottles, become trapped inside where they are forced to stay for the rest of the night.
To signal their displeasure at being confined they can often be heard moaning when the wind blows through the bottle tree and, when the sun rises the next morning, the sunlight burns and destroys the evil spirits trapped inside. The empty bottles are then free to lie in wait for the next wandering soul that may wander by when nightfall arrives.
Even though you can see bottle trees made from bottles of many colors, the deep cobalt blue bottle, or “haint blue” is often the most preferred color since that it is thought to symbolize the crossroads between the realm of the living and that of the dead, where it is believed that the wayward souls reside, and this color was originally associated with both healing properties and ghosts.
Interestingly, often a bottle tree is not enough and as a result many locals have learned to employ additional methods to keep these wandering haints from taking up residence in their homes.
And in fact, If you travel to any of the old Southern cities, you will see a curious shade of light blue painted on the floors and ceilings of their front porches of many of the older homes in order to ward off evil spirits.
The idea behind the so-called “haint blue” is that it mimics the color of water and, according to old traditions, spirits cannot move across water. If the front porch of a home is painted with haint blue it is believed that no one will cross over and enter the house.
Nowadays most Southerners use bottle trees merely for decorations in their gardens and most people do not have them to protect from evil spirits, but not onyl, as many don’t even realize that was the original purpose. Instead, they welcome them as a creative addition to their yards, like bird baths or garden gnomes.
Of course, to someone not born and raised in the South, the original purpose of bottle tree may seem a bit ridiculous, but this land carries many scars. Given slavery, the bloodshed of the Civil War and the poverty and hard times that followed, it is not hard to believe that there may be more than a few restless souls wandering through the night in the Southern countryside.
And many of them may not have the best of intentions.
In any case, bottle trees and porches and doors painted with haint blue can often offer protection but, as any local knows, there are times when an overly persistent haint will still get through and make its way into the home.
And once inside it will often decide to stay awhile…
Images from web – Google Research