Growing up in northern California, I never saw a bottle tree; likewise in my 20 years living in the Dallas area. In Eureka Springs, on the other hand, bottle trees are a common decorative element in front yards and gardens.
Felder Rushing, a Southern gardener and lecturer, calls bottle trees “poor man’s stained glass.” The following history is complied from his web site:
“Bottle trees and the superstitions surrounding them were embraced by most ancient cultures, including European. Although glass was made deliberately as early as 3500 B.C. in northern Africa, hollow glass bottles began appearing around 1600 B.C. in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Clear glass was invented in Alexandria around 100 A.D.
Soon around that time, tales began to circulate that spirits could live in bottles – probably from when people heard sounds caused by wind blowing over bottle openings. This led to the belief in “bottle imps,” and people started using glass to capture or repel bad spirits. The idea was, roaming night spirits would be lured into and trapped in bottles placed around entryways, and morning light would destroy them.
The bottle imp/bad spirit lore was carried down through sub-Saharan Africa, up into eastern Europe, and eventually imported into the Americas by African slaves. They believed that evil spirits got trapped inside the bottles before they had a chance to get into the house. In some traditions, these spirits entered at night and were killed when the sun heated the glass during the day. In others, the bottles were randomly removed, plugged, then set adrift in the river.
As for blue bottle trees, blue has long been associated with ghosts, spirits, and “haints” – there is even a blue paint used around windows and doors of cottages to repel spirits called “haint blue.” Here in the South, blue bottles were readily available as Milk of Magnesia bottles.”
In the case of our blue bottle tree, guests generously left us an abundance of empty blue bottles that had once held an adult beverage. We had a dead cedar tree with multiple branches. A perfect combination!