We were driving through the small town of Hillsborough, North Carolina this August when we saw this blue-glass bottle tree in the front yard of a small bungalow.
Bottle trees are an African-American folk tradition in the South, that evolved from West and Central African belief that malevolant spirits can be trapped inside empty bottles. People put empty bottles on the branches of trees or even dead branches propped up to resemble trees. The bottle tree is kept in the yard near the house, to draw the spirits away from the dwelling place.
The spirits enter the bottles at night, the belief goes, and then, trappped, they are burned up by the heat of the morning sun.
It's so much the better if the bottles are pretty colored glass, to be more attractive to those wicked and mischievous spirits. Milk of magnesia bottles in deep cobalt blue were prized for bottle trees. Sometimes other pretty, shiny objects like pie tins, ribbons and bits of glass also decorate the bottle tree.
Mississippian Eudora Welty worked as a publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration between 1933 and 1936. In her travels around the state, she took photos of rural life. Those images led to her storytelling, and her career as one of Mississippi's best known fiction writers. She wrote "Livvie," a short story published in 1943 in the collection "The Wide Net," where a young black woman marries an older man who keeps her isolated from the rest of the world, for fear she will be drawn away from him. He keeps a bottle tree in the yard, which Livvie recognizes because she
"...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."Welty wrote about the real bottle tree that inspired the story, in her book "One Writer's Beginnings":
"Along Mississippi roads you'd now and then see bottle trees; you'd see them alone or in crowds in the front yards of remote farmhouses. I photographed one - a bare crape myrtle with every branch of it ending in the mouth of a colored glass bottle - a blue Milk of Magnesia or and orange or green pop bottle; reflecting the light, flashing its colors in the sun, it stood as the centerpiece in a little thicket of peach trees in bloom."