There are two kinds of bottle trees: The first one is a plant with a bottlelike shape (Brachychiton Rupestris) that grows mostly in Australia. Then there are trees — living or dead or sculptures resembling trees — that hold empty bottles. Originally these recycled sculptures had spiritual significance but have morphed into garden decorations.
Fascinated by bottle gardens since his teens, Felder Rushing has researched their history and photographed them throughout the United States, Europe, South America and Africa.
According to Rushing, who lives and gardens in both Mississippi and Shropshire, England, hollow bottles were invented in Egypt in 1600 B.C. People probably thought that spirits could live in bottles when they heard sounds caused by wind blowing over the openings.
This led to the idea that imps and genies (from the Arabic word djinn) could be captured in bottles. If you could lure roaming night spirits into a bottle, the morning light would destroy them. The notion spread through sub-Saharan Africa into eastern Europe and eventually came to the Americas via African slaves, who put colored bottles in trees near their homes to keep evil spirits away.
Traditionally seen throughout the rural American South and the Caribbean, bottle trees soon became a colorful, inexpensive way to decorate yards and lawns. Handcrafted ones are usually made with dead trees, but unless the empties are well placed, bottles can fall off the branches, or collect water, and can be attractive to insects looking for a place to hang out.
Because bottle trees are now a popular decorative fixture in gardens throughout the U.S. — like plastic flamingos, bird baths and gnomes — steel versions are sold in garden centers and online by Amazon and Target.
In 1997 Dudley Pleasants, a freelance musician, welder and farmer in Greenwood, Mississippi, made a bottle tree for his wife. She wanted on because the once-popular ornaments had been disappearing from the local landscape as farming became more mechanized and tenant farms were razed.
Soon others admired the tree in the Pleasants’ yard and wanted one of their own. Because farmers don’t have much to do in the winter months, Dudley and a neighbor went into the manufacturing business as The Bottle Tree Man. They provide everything but the bottles — the recipient can collect them in his or her favorite color and size.
Pleasants recommends that collectors check to see whether their bottles are painted — you can tell if there is a small clear spot on the top. If so, he suggests spraying the bottle with three coats of acrylic protector to prevent fading.