Glass “bottle trees” have been around for centuries, first as icons of superstitious beliefs based on a three-thousand year old Arabian folk tale, and now increasingly as eccentric but popular home-made glass garden ornaments. I know these folksy sculptures aren’t every one’s cup of tea, but there are thousands of them scattered across gardens of a surprising assortment of people; I’ve photographed them in modest home gardens to upscale botanical gardens and art museums, rarely with any two being exactly alike – the only things the widely diverse gardeners who create or display them have in common are glass bottles held up where the sunshine can radiate through them.
Some wet blankets sniff that these folksy paeans to stained glass are forgettable sights, which to me means they just don’t get it, and that’s okay – I mean, not everyone hangs glittery stuff from holes in their ears, either, right?
Though Eudora Welty photographed a bottle tree in the 1930s, the first authentic glass bottle tree I can recall was beside a tenant shack on a dusty road dead center in the Mississippi Delta. I was maybe fifteen, yet to this day the inexplicable spectacle haunts my sense of the absurd.
For centuries people have used colorful glass in windows to bring color into the home (especially during dreary winter days, to stave off Season Affective Disorder). And it seems perfectly natural to use them outdoors as colorful garden art.
But where does the concept of ordinary folk art called “bottle trees” come from originally? For years I subscribed to the widely-popular but unproven meme that they were introduced to America by slaves from sub-Saharan Africans. However, my deep research, including with glass historians, uncovered that bottle trees (and spiritual connections) were around as early as 1600 B.C. in Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Because of their connection to ancient superstitions, there are folks who refute the use of bottle trees. That dogged stance itself seems a bit superstitious, much along the lines of how we think twice about walking under ladders or “touch wood” when someone suggests that something predictably bad may happen. Most of us don’t succumb to these silly thoughts, but think them just the same.
The original bottled jinn
Around when hollow glass bottles began appearing, around 1600 B.C., tales quickly began to circulate that spirits could live in them – probably from people who heard wind moaning over the bottles, which led to the belief that “bottle imps” could be captured in glass vessels.
This itself was based on a much older folk tale of a man named Aladdin whose magical lamp housed a shape-shifting, wish-granting creature called a jinn. The fantastic tale first appeared in The Book of One Thousand Nights and One Night, a French translation of a collection of ancient stories compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age.
Genies, or jinni, are a class of spirits that according to Muslim demonology inhabit the earth, assume various forms, and exercise supernatural power. After the French translators used génie as a translation of jinni, the English continued the tradition; the earliest written use of the word appeared in 1655, in a plural spelled genyes.
Apparently, the bottle imp/bad spirit belief was carried – along with glass bottles – down through sub-Saharan Africa as well as up into Europe, before eventually being brought to the Americas with the slave trade. Thomas Atwood, in his History of the Island of Domi (1791) wrote about the confidence among Caribbean slaves in the power of “sticks, stones, and earth from graves hung in bottles in their gardens.”
Yet even before then, Germans, Irish, and other superstitious Europeans (who also put hex symbols on barns and celebrated May Day and Hallowe’en) were using reflective glass, “gazing balls” and hollow “witch balls” to repel or capture witches and other supernatural spirits.
In 13th century Venice, skilled Italian artisans crafted them from mouth-blown glass. Fifteenth century priest Antonio Nier referred to them as Sphere of Light, and legends formed around their mysterious powers of the globes, which purportedly brought happiness, good luck and prosperity to those who owned one. The globes were also thought to ward off evil spirits, misfortune, illness, and even witches.
A hollow sphere of plain or stained glass was popular among cultures in which so-called “witches” were considered a blessing. Self-professing witches would usually “enchant” the balls to enhance their potency against evils. However, by the 18th century Europeans commonly hung them in cottage windows to ward off roaming spirits, witch spells, or ill fortune. According to folk tales at the time, witch balls would entice spirits with their bright colors; the strands inside the ball would capture the spirit and prevent its escape.
Cobalt Blue – favored for bottle trees, named after German gnomes
The color of choice for bottle trees has long been blue. While most experts disagree on how, or even if, colors affect humans psychologically, man references agree that blue is a universally relaxing, calming color.
Ingots of cobalt glass over five thousand years old have been recovered from Minoan shipwrecks and a cobalt blue Persian glass necklace has been fated to 2250 B.C. when Mt. Vesuvius blew itself to pieces in 79 ad., it buried cobalt glass objects with their owners.
The name “cobalt” comes from the mountainous silver mining areas of medieval Germany. The earliest record of the word first used in 1335 A.D., applied to mysterious mountain spirits called kobalds, though to be causing respiratory problems in the miners – actually, not far from the truth, since cobalt dust releases arsenic during smelting, which would have caused the miners’ respiratory ills.
Contemporary Garden Glass
All that said, both “yard art” bottle trees and high-end glass sculptures are but simple variations on the same theme: glass deliberately placed in garden settings. So don’t get hung up on what or how… just relax and enjoy.
Now, home gardeners and glass artists (including Dale Chihuly, the world’s best-known garden glass artist), and even high-end garden shows including the Chelsea Flower Show and the international Floriade held every ten years in the Netherlands, embrace an amazing assortment of garden art made with glass.
Visit my bottle tree page for more information.