There does exist a very rare and magical tree that can be found worldwide but is very hard to find for any botanist or forester. What could this tree species be? Well it is the illusive Bottle Tree (Silica transparencii), which translated means clear glass. This tree species has many different cultivars that range from The Pride of Kentucky which is a tree that is all green to Uncle Sam that has a red, white, and blue color scheme. But the most valued of all the bottle trees is the Cobalt Goddess, which is all blue. But where did this tree originate?
The bottle tree has a simple beginning that started in Northern Africa where glass was first made around 3500 B.C. Then in 1600 B.C. individuals in Egypt began to make hollow bottles. Then in Alexandria around 100 A.D. clear glass bottles began to be produced.
During this same time period, in the Kongo, natives were honoring the dead through their tree altars. These altars were set up at the gravesite by the relatives of the deceased. Family members would bring plates shaped like mushrooms and hang them on these tree altars. From these tree altars, the concept of the bottle tree was born in the ninth century.
Bottles throughout history have had a unique importance as far as capturing evil spirits. Stories of moaning coming from bottles started to appear in many different texts. It was believed that evil spirits, bottle imps, or haints could be trapped inside bottles. These bottles could be corked and thrown in the water. This would kill the evil spirits. This in turn moved to the bottle tree and the belief grew that evil spirits would get trapped inside the bottle during the night and when the sun rose would be killed.
Slaves carried the concept and belief of catching evil spirits in glass to Europe and North America. The Europeans branched off and created hollow glass balls called “witch balls” to collect their evil spirits while the plantations in the southern United States took up the idea of the bottle tree. This idea was then carried up into Appalachia.
In Appalachia colored bottles for trees are known as “poor man’s stained glass” or “garden earrings.” The bottle tree’s trunk can be made from dead trees, big limbs tied together, wooden posts with large nails in them, metal rods welded together, rebar stuck in the ground and even the tines of a pitch fork.
The bottles can be any size and color but blue bottles are the most valued due to their ability to capture more evil spirits.
To build your own bottle tree only requires a few supplies and your imagination. A dead cedar or crepe myrtles are the traditional trees that are typically turned into bottle trees. But any dead tree or wooden post will work. The next step is to remove the branches even with the trunk of the tree or use the trees natural branches as long as they are not too big to hold the bottles. If branches are removed or one is using a post, simply drill holes 3/8-inch in the “trunk.” The design can take the shape of a set pattern or can be free form in style. Then place rebar in the holes and tap with a rubber mallet.
Now the fun begins. The bottle tree is now ready for decorating. Wine bottles are great for bottle trees. Their necks are long and easily slide down the “branches” of the bottle tree but the colors can be limiting. If this is the case try changing the appearance of clear glass bottles by pouring glass or hobby paint down through the neck of the bottle. Swirl the paint and pour out excess. Let dry and display on your tree.
Another choice is beer bottles. While these come in an array of colors the size can be limiting. But if this type of bottle is your forte then simply shorten the “branches” of the bottle tree. A further option for bottles is to use perfume or spice bottles. These bottles require a much smaller tree and branches. While these trees really do not find home in the landscape they do look beautiful in a kitchen or bathroom.
So to keep the evil spirits at bay or just to keep the Silica transparencii alive, plant a bottle tree. I promise that regardless of how gray the day may be the bottle tree will bring a smile to your face and a song in your heart as you look through “poor man’s stained glass.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mindy McIntosh-Shetter has been an Agricultural Science educator, and is a horticulture and/or environmental blogger who earned a degree from Purdue University in Agriculture Education with a minor in biology, and natural resources. Presently she is finishing up her Masters in Environmental Education and Urban Planning for the University of Louisville while working on her own agriculture/environmental blog.