Southern Wench, Rita Monette shares bottle tree legends with us today. She uses the trees in her delightful children’s novel, The Legend of Ghost Dog Island.
Have you ever driven through Louisiana, or some other southern state, and noticed a tree with colored bottles either hanging from it or stuck onto their branches? More than likely they were blue bottles. No, they are not a poor man’s stained glass display.
It is said that this traditional practice was brought here by the Africans during the slave trade. In the Congo, Natives hung hand-blown glass on huts and trees to ward off evil spirits since the ninth century, and perhaps earlier.
The Legend is told that the spirits are attracted to the sparkling color of the bottles, blue ones seemingly more enticing. The moaning sound made by the wind as it passes over the bottle openings are said to be proof that a spirit is trapped within. Whether you believe the legend or not, the trees are a sight to behold, displayed in various shapes, sizes, and forms, as beautiful yard and garden decorations.
An excerpt from Eudora Welty’s short story Livvie, describes one such tree:
“…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 of 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 the 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.”
A bottle tree is featured in the movie, Ray, a Ray Charles biopic. And again in the Princess and the Frog, a cartoon movie set in New Orleans, where bottle trees hang in the bayou.
In my children’s Novel, The Legend of Ghost Dog Island, a bottle tree adorns the front entrance of a voodoo woman’s shack. Excerpt below:
“What y’all want?” The yellow glow from a kerosene lamp cast the shadowy outline of scraggly hair and humped shoulders.
I took my braid and twisted it between my fingers. “I’m looking for my dog, ma’am.”
“What kinda dog?” The face pushed closer to the small window and into view.
Red paint decorated the porch and railing—or was it blood? Some sort of animal skin hung from nails.
She was a witch all right. My hands felt sweaty. “A beagle, ma’am.” My voice cracked. “Do you have a beagle?” I remembered the three quarters, two dimes, and six pennies Patti and I got from her piggy bank in case we needed it to buy Snooper back. “I have money.”
The door creaked open. “Come on in.” A wrinkled eye peered through the crack.
Spikes took a step forward.
I followed close behind him. I didn’t want to go in that creepy shack, but I sure didn’t want to go back through the swamp alone. A slight breeze blew up, triggering a tinkling sound behind me. I turned to see colored bottles hanging from a nearby tree. The moonlight bounced off the deep-blue glass like fireflies dancing in the warm night air.
“Look at that.” I pointed to the display.
“Yeah, it’s a bottle tree. Some folks ’round here make those to trap evil spirits, to keep them away,” Spikes whispered.
“She wants to keep evil away?”
For more on The Legend of Ghost Dog Island: