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HAHN: Quest for a bottle tree

June 6, 2011

A couple of years back, I wrote a column about bottle trees. I wanted one, but at our age Bill and I have no business tramping around in the woods looking for small dead cedar trees to make one. Well, I recently found a metal bottle tree at a reasonable price in a catalog — one of the many unsolicited ones that I get every week in my mailbox.
Because it is made of metal, you just stick it in the ground. It only holds 15 bottles, but I like it. The rains we have had recently keep the ground so soft that it leans a bit. Hopefully, that will change with the coming heat of summer.
America’s bottle trees descend from the African culture, brought here by the slaves. They believed that people could put “hexes” or spells on other people. These hexes could be simply annoying (like having trouble sleeping or an annoying itchy sensation) or threatening of more serious consequences.
Bottle trees, they believed, would draw all the evil spirits and hexes into the bottles and hold them there until they were no longer a threat. The wind blowing over the openings creates a whistling sort of sound, so you know that evil spirits are trapped within.
From the time when man first started making clay bottles and pots, he has given these useful vessels magical powers. Remember the story about the man who found a bottle, picked it up and rubbed the dirt from its surface? When he did, a genie appeared. The genie told him that, as a reward for freeing him (in more modern stories, the genie is female) from the bottle, the genie will grant him three wishes. The legends of genii go even farther back in Oriental history than the African tales of voodoo and “haints” do.
In the African cultures, some bottles are more powerful than others. Bottles’ powers come from two sources — the size of the opening and the color of the glass. Bottles with small necks arouse the curiosity of the evil spirits. They enter the bottle and then cannot find their way out again. When the morning sun comes up, its revitalizing rays vaporize the evil spirits.
In African cultures the color blue is particularly strong in keeping evil spirits at bay. And the darker blue the color is, the more powerful and protective the item is. That is why you find many blue doors and porches and such in New Orleans.
Blue bottles, they say, are also good at protecting people from insects. According to folklore, they entice gnats and mosquitoes and those pesky “no-see-ums” that annoy people who try to enjoy sitting outside on their porch or lawn at dusk.
Many people use the deep blue colored bottles exclusively for making bottle trees. These bottles are made from cobalt. Cobalt glass is more expensive than other methods of manufacture, so not as many are made now. (For that matter, not many glass bottles are made today. Plastic is cheaper.)
This deep blue color reflects the light beautifully, but cobalt glass is hard to find nowadays. I wanted a Phillips Milk of Magnesia bottle for my tree. I have a cobalt (I think) water bottle, but the shape of the MoM is especially desirable. I visited all the antique places around here and on this side of Little Rock (except that one that is so piled up). I found several, but the cheapest was $18.
Next I went to eBay. They, too, were expensive. My daughter, however, located one for $5. It is small, but that suits me just fine. If the rains will let up, I am going to put it out this week.
If you are driving to Hot Springs on Highway 5, there is a lovely bottle tree between Benton and Hot Springs Village. There are also several in Little Rock that are occasionally pictured in magazines. Barbara Pryor, wife of Sen. David Pryor, used to have a beautiful one.
You probably can’t see my bottle tree from the street; it is in my backyard near the birdbath, which is decorated with green china salamanders. I wanted two life-size alligators to put in the flower bed around the bird bath, but they were too expensive. Too bad. Maybe they would have kept the kids away from my flowers.

Alma Joyce Hahn taught in the Benton schools for more than 30 years. Her column appears each Monday.

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