Deidre Betancourt is used to getting puzzled looks and wisecracks about the tree sprouting from her yard.
It’s not a living plant, but a bottle tree — a tree-shaped metal frame with wine bottles stuck on the ends of the branches. It’s a playful sculpture that fits right in with the free-spirited garden Betancourt tends behind her house on the shore of the Portage Lakes’ East Reservoir.
The tree was given to her about 10 or 15 years ago by a friend. “It just made me laugh,” said Betancourt, who has fielded her share of jokes about the source of the wine bottles.
“Honestly, I don’t like wine that much,” she said. “I’m a bourbon drinker.”
Bottle trees like Betancourt’s are a common decoration in the South, but they’re still fairly unusual in Northern gardens. That’s changing, however, thanks largely to the Internet and social-networking sites like Pinterest that are spreading the concept to new audiences.
Bottle trees can be real trees — living or dead — with bottles slipped over the branch tips, or they can be metal frames like Betancourt’s, simple wooden posts with pegs or pretty much any form the creator can dream up. Blue wine bottles are often used, but any kind or color of bottle is fair game.
“Bottle trees are a concept,” said Felder Rushing, the celebrated Southern gardener who recently published Bottle Trees … And the Whimsical Art of Garden Glass. No rules govern their creation, he insisted.
The trees have a spiritual aspect as well as an ornamental one. Legend has it that the bottles lure and trap evil spirits to keep them from entering a house.
The roots of that superstition reach just about as far back in history as glass bottles do, Rushing said.
He said hollow glass vessels first appeared in Egypt and Mesopotamia around 1600 B.C., and it wasn’t long before stories started circulating about spirits living in them. Probably that belief grew from the whistling sound made by the wind blowing over the bottles’ mouths, he said.
Rushing said people started putting glass vessels near their entries, believing roaming spirits would enter the vessels at night and be destroyed by the morning’s sunlight. That concept took a number of forms, including witch balls, gazing globes and the bottle tree idea that was brought to America by African slaves.
Often the bottles were blue because of the color’s association with water, which was thought to repel spirits, or “haints.” In fact, haint blue is still a popular hue for trim and porch ceilings in the South.
Bottle trees have long been a part of Southern culture. Eudora Welty wrote about them in her short story Livvie, and a photograph she took in 1941 shows a cabin in rural Mississippi with bottle trees in the yard.
As a Northerner, though, Jerry Swanson had never heard of bottle trees when he started searching for ideas for using some blue bottles he owned. He made his first one in 2001, “and I thought, maybe I could sell these.”
Now Swanson crafts bottle trees from iron in a variety of styles and sells them through Bottle Tree Creations (www.bottletreecreations.com), his company in Princeton, Wis.
His diverse designs include bottle tree “saplings” (straight metal rods topped with individual bottles), a tree with bottles that spiral around a center post, an arrangement that resembles cattails and small bottle sculptures shaped like turkeys and peacocks. He even incorporates such accents as birdbaths and gazing globes and makes a bottle tree that doubles as a plant hanger.
Swanson has sold his bottle trees to customers in 45 states, three Canadian provinces and even Great Britain.
He attributes their growing reach to the increasing popularity of gardening and people’s desire for something different to put in their gardens.
Bottle trees are still a novelty in the North, “something most Midwesterners don’t come across,” he said. “It’s nothing you’ll see down the street.”
Rushing said Northerners historically have tended to be less expressive with garden ornamentation than Southerners, especially those of African descent. But baby boomers were raised with more interest in color and self-expression than previous generations, he said, and they’re embracing quirkier art forms such as bottle trees.
“It’s an easy way to get people to express themselves. … The garden needs something to personalize it,” Rushing said.
For North Canton art teacher Ashley Villers and her students, a bottle tree was a means of expressing a bigger message: the importance of protecting the Earth.
In the fall of 2011, Villers and her eighth-grade students at North Canton Middle School designed a bottle tree for the school as a work of public art with an environmental theme. Villers said she had been inspired by the bottle trees created by an artist whose shop she’d visited in Florida, so the concept was one of the options she suggested to her classes.
Gervasi Vineyard and community members donated wine bottles, Knoch Corp. donated rebar, and Accent Concrete bent the metal bars and created the tree shape. The students painted the bottles with environmental messages and used them to decorate the tree, which was installed in the school’s courtyard.
The school is in good company. Rushing said he’s seeing bottle trees in top garden shows, even the vaunted Chelsea Flower Show in London.
They’re just another way of decorating with glass, a material popularized in garden art on a more upscale level by Seattle artist Dale Chihuly.
Bottle trees, he said, “are just what I call redneck Chihuly.”
Still, some people consider them tacky. Others reject them as a pagan symbol.
Rushing has no patience with either of those views. Adorning a garden with bottles is no more tacky than adorning ears with earrings, he said. And he argues the pagan associations aren’t any more significant with a bottle tree than they are with a Christmas tree.
Betancourt isn’t so sure.
She said the friend who gave her the bottle tree in her yard did so after Betancourt had complained about a woman in her neighborhood.
“I jokingly said I put it up to keep her away,” she said. “And she stayed away.”
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.