Blue-bottle trees -- A throwback to Gullah traditions

December 11, 2009 

Victoria Smalls of The Red Piano Too Art Gallery arranges bottles on a metal blue bottle tree Friday behind the gallery on St. Helena Island. The trees once were made by attaching bottles to the branches of living trees and shrubs, but artists now make trees of metal or wood, too.

JEFF KIDD • ISLAND PACKET

An authentic relic of African culture, or a modern-day fad with the historical relevance of a Snuggie?

Spirit-catcher, old-time bug zapper or mere decoration?

Shabby chic, or just plain tacky?

Blue-bottle trees adorn many a Lowcountry garden and roadside stand, and their cobalt ornamentation makes them undeniably eye-catching. They generally are believed to be derived from African-American folk art, but little is documented about their origins, according to Rosalyn Browne, Penn Center's director of history and culture.

And that only adds to their mystery.

So The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet pose seven questions to explain the history and appeal of the blue-bottle tree.

• So which is it -- do blue-bottle trees have roots in African-American culture, or are they simply a fad designed to tap the wallet of gullible tourists?: Browne says that despite scant documentation of their origins, blue-bottle trees are an authentic piece of southern and African-American culture. She points to a book by a professor at the State University of New York tracing their use to religous rituals in the Congo.

Mary Inabinett Mack, owner of the Red Piano Too Art Gallery on St. Helena Island, agrees blue-bottle trees are authentic.

In the interest of full disclosure, Mack's shop sells the yard and garden decorations (sans blue bottles.) But she also recalls her grandmother tying blue bottles to the branches of a magnolia tree in her yard, a memory dating at least to the 1940s.

"That goes back to a tradition in the African-American community when we used to sweep and decorate the yard," Mack said.

• What, exactly, is the significance of the blue-bottle tree?: According to several sources, the trees are used to keep evil spirits --"haints" or "wooly boogers," for example -- out of one's home. They even are effective on a particularly nasty goblin known as a "plat eye" -- in Gullah culture, the evil spirit of someone improperly buried, according to the Web site Moonlitroad.com.

The spirits come out at dusk and are beckoned inside by slanting light refracted through the sparkling blue bottles. Once inside, the spirits are trapped. Some say they are vaporized when the bottles are flooded with morning sun. Others say the spirits simply cannot escape the bottle and that you can hear them moaning in agony when the wind blows through the tree branches.

• Why the color blue?: Today, you can find the trees adorned with bottles of many colors, but blue is particularly popular and particularly true to the tree's origins. Browne says the color blue long has been believed to ward off evil spirits.

"In fact, the aspect of using colors and symbols -- related to good spirits and bad sprits -- came with the Africans themselves, as they came to the Americas from Africa or the Caribbean," Browne said.

That belief in the power of colors also explains blue doors and blue porch ceilings -- both are so painted to keep evil from crossing the threshold into a home. Blue-bottle trees prevent the spirits from even getting that close.

Some say the blue-bottle trees did a fair job of ridding homes of more terrestrial nuisances -- bugs.

According to the blogger The Lazy Gardener, the lime once used to make blue bottles also is an insect repellent that keeps skeeters and noseeums out of your house. This doesn't work anymore, though -- apparently, lime no longer is used to turn things blue.

• How are blue-bottle trees made?: Mack recalls her grandmother tying blue bottles to a magnolia. A crape myrtle mature and sturdy enough to support the weight of the bottles is another popular choice, with the branches simply inserted into the bottle necks.

Some artists now craft artificial trees made of wood or metal rods. Mack sells in her store trees made by a man in Aiken. A blue-bottle tree behind her store was constructed by a Hank Herring, a Beaufort resident, artist, retired Marine and former part-time employee of Red Piano Too.

• What is the most difficult part of assembling a blue-bottle tree?: Many say it is finding the blue bottles, particularly those in the distinctive cobalt shade usually associated with the trees. Milk of Magnesia, Vick's Salve or certain brands of bottled water are highly sought-after.

Mack has a tree in her yard that she has festooned with pint jars she found at a Dollar General store and bottles of the energy drink Bawls. Also used are wine bottles -- she once purchased a case of a particular vintage from a Rhode Island vineyard just to have the distinctive, blue bottles.

"If I see a blue bottle of wine, a lot of times I'll buy it whether I like the wine or not," she said.

• What's the second-most difficult part of assembling a blue-bottle tree?: Sometimes, getting permission, as Hilton Head Island couple Deborah Brooks and James Borton discovered in August 2008.

They erected a tree outside their home -- apropos, it seemed to them, since they lived in a neighborhood carved from land off Spanish Wells Road that long was used by African-American families.

"We moved into an area where our bottle tree could be considered a small part of what we've all taken from this area," Brooks told The Island Packet.

But the Oakview neighborhood has restrictive covenants, and the bottle tree fell among other no-nos islanders are familiar with: No clothes lines, fences, statuary or structures in the yard.

• Just how "Lowcountry" are blue-bottle trees?: They're strongly associated with the area because of their African-American/Gullah roots, but they hardly are unique to the Lowcountry.

One Web site devoted to bottle trees displays pictures of them from many southern states, Australia, France, the Netherlands and even exotic locales such as Oklahoma.

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