Deidre Betancourt is used to getting puzzled looks and wisecracks about the tree sprouting from her yard.
It’s not a living plant, but a bottle tree— a tree-shaped metal frame with wine bottles stuck on the ends of the branches. It’s a playful sculpture that fits right in with the free-spirited garden Betancourt tends behind her house on the shore of a reservoir in Akron, Ohio.
The tree was given to her about 10 or 15 years ago by a friend. “It just made me laugh,” said Betancourt, who has fielded her share of jokes about the source of the wine bottles.
“Honestly, I don’t like wine that much,” she said. “I’m a bourbon drinker.”
Bottle trees like Betancourt’s are a common decoration in the South, but they’re still fairly unusual in Northern gardens. That’s changing, however, thanks largely to the Internet and social-networking sites like Pinterest that are spreading the concept to new audiences.
Bottle trees can be real trees — living or dead — with bottles slipped over the branch tips, or they can be metal frames like Betancourt’s, simple wooden posts with pegs or pretty much any form the creator can dream up. Blue wine bottles are often used, but any kind or color of bottle is fair game.
“Bottle trees are a concept,” said Felder Rushing, the celebrated Southern gardener who recently published Bottle Trees … And the Whimsical Art of Garden Glass. No rules govern their creation, he insisted.
The trees have a spiritual aspect as well as an ornamental one. Legend has it that the bottles lure and trap evil spirits to keep them from entering a house.
The roots of that superstition reach just about as far back in history as glass bottles do, Rushing said.
He said hollow glass vessels first appeared in Egypt and Mesopotamia around 1600 B.C., and it wasn’t long before stories started circulating about spirits living in them. Probably that belief grew from the whistling sound made by the wind blowing over the bottles’ mouths, he said.
Rushing said people started putting glass vessels near their entries, believing roaming spirits would enter the vessels at night and be destroyed by the morning’s sunlight. That concept took a number of forms, including witch balls, gazing globes and the bottle tree idea that was brought to America by African slaves.
Often the bottles were blue because of the color’s association with water, which was thought to repel spirits, or “haints.” In fact, haint blue is still a popular hue for trim and porch ceilings in the South.
Bottle trees have long been a part of Southern culture. Eudora Welty wrote about them in her short story Livvie, and a photograph she took in 1941 shows a cabin in rural Mississippi with bottle trees in the yard.
As a Northerner, though, Jerry Swanson had never heard of bottle trees when he started searching for ideas for using some blue bottles he owned. He made his first one in 2001, “and I thought, maybe I could sell these.”
Now Swanson crafts bottle trees from iron in a variety of styles and sells them through Bottle Tree Creations (www.bottletreecreations.com), his company in Princeton, Wis.
His diverse designs include bottle tree “saplings” (straight metal rods topped with individual bottles), a tree with bottles that spiral around a center post, an arrangement that resembles cattails and small bottle sculptures shaped like turkeys and peacocks. He even incorporates such accents as birdbaths and gazing globes and makes a bottle tree that doubles as a plant hanger.
Rushing said Northerners historically have tended to be less expressive with garden ornamentation than Southerners, especially those of African descent. But baby boomers were raised with more interest in color and self-expression than previous generations, he said, and they’re embracing quirkier art forms such as bottle trees.
“It’s an easy way to get people to express themselves. … The garden needs something to personalize it,” Rushing said.