Tree in a bottle

Bottle Trees

SERIES 19 | Episode 04

Brachychiton is a genus containing more than 30 species commonly found growing in the tropical and subtropical parts of Australia, but we are going to focus on a particular species – the Queensland bottle tree.

The bottle tree has one of the most visually interesting shapes. It’s botanically known as Brachychiton rupestris, it’s a member of the Malvaceae family and is also commonly known as the Queensland bottle tree, or narrow leaf bottle tree.

The common name derives from the tree’s shape, which becomes bottle like as it ages at between five and eight years of age. Some people believe the tree is hollow but the swelling is due to the water held in its trunk. The bottle tree is semi-deciduous and reaches 18 to 20 metres. But if grown in cooler regions it’s usually smaller. The leaves are about a hundred millimetres long and these drop from the tree before flowering. The bell shaped, or campanulate, yellowish flowers usually form between October and December in clusters at the end of the branches.

The bottle tree doesn’t get attacked by many pests but damage to the trunk makes the tree susceptible to infection. Make sure you don’t damage the bark with the mower or the brushcutter and don’t pile mulch against the trunk.

Bottle trees grow best in well drained, slightly acidic soil, in full sunshine but they can also withstand temperatures of -8 degrees up to +50 degrees celsius.

If you’re looking for a feature tree in your garden that’s guaranteed to be a talking point, you can’t go past the Queensland bottle tree Brachychiton rupestris.

Walnut Creek’s Ruth Bancroft is a national authority on drought-resistant gardening. Twice a month, she and her staff share their knowledge with Times readers.

AROUND THE WORLD, there are various trees from different families that have developed swollen trunks. These often come from areas where rainfall is low or erratic, providing a means to store moisture to tide the tree over until the next rains. The common name Bottle Tree is often applied to plants of this sort because of the appearance of the enlarged trunk.

One such tree is Brachychiton rupestris, popularly known as the Queensland Bottle Tree, referring to the state in eastern Australia from which it comes. Other related Australian trees are also called bottle trees, but none gets as fat-trunked as B. rupestris.

The leaves of Brachychiton rupestris are unusual in that they change form as the plant matures. Young seedlings have slender leaves, but as they get a little older, they switch to divided leaves with narrow lobes radiating like the fingers of a hand. As the trees get larger, the leaves change again, dispensing with the lobes and becoming lanceolate (shaped like the head of a lance, with a pointed tip). However, as befits a tree that can’t seem to make up its mind, even mature trees will sometimes make three-pointed leaves.

Brachychitons belong to the family Sterculiaceae, which consists mostly of tropical trees, including the cola nut of soft-drink fame. Brachychiton flowers lack true petals, but have sepals which are petal-like in appearance. Some kinds, such as the Australian Flame Tree (Brachychiton acerifolius), have very showy flowers. Those of B. rupestris are more modest.

They are small and are not conspicuous when viewed from a distance, but they are attractive close-up, with cream sepals that curl back and bear red markings on their face. The seed pods resemble little leather pouches with coarse hairs within and chalky yellow seeds that are encased in a papery wrapping.

Brachychiton rupestris is drought-tolerant and easy to grow, thriving both in hotter inland areas, such as Walnut Creek, as well as cooler Bay-side locations. It must be noted, however, that the rains in its native Queensland come in summer, and thus occasional summer irrigation is necessary to keep it happy.

It is seldom encountered in Northern California gardens, and even the entry in the new edition of the Sunset Garden Book lists only Southern California climate zones for it, but do not let this dissuade you from growing this wonderful tree. It is not fussy about soil type, and can endure cold spells down to at least 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

These trees are not rapid growers, so patience is required to achieve the stout girth that makes our large specimen at the Ruth Bancroft Garden such a favorite with visitors.

If you have a question for the Ruth Bancroft Garden, e-mail [email protected] For tour and event information, visit http://www.ruthbancroftgarden.org.

Bottle Trees: Mystical Color for the Garden

When Greg Grant, then a Texas A&M University Extension agent, told me about bottle trees and their origins nearly two decades ago, they transfixed me with their beauty, simplicity and ancient past.

I lived in Texas near the Louisiana border, at the time, where bottle trees were occasionally found in rural areas.

Now bottle trees are everywhere, from Houston mansions to gardens in Vermont and California. I created one in the perennial bed under my kitchen window and love to gaze upon it amongst the orange and yellow lilies and other perennials, as I wash dishes or cook.

The Bottle Tree Expert

Grant’s good friend Felder Rushing, who lives in the Mississippi Delta, researched the bottle tree migration from Africa with the slave trade to the old South. His book, Bottle trees, and website are packed with history, legend, and gorgeous photos.

When African slaves arrived in the U.S., they created bottle trees from dead trees or large limbs next to their quarters and adorned them with glass bottles scavenged from garbage piles. Blue bottles were coveted, because they repelled evil and trapped night spirits to be destroyed by the rising sun. Many Milk of Magnesia bottles ended up on trees!

Bottle trees, often referred to as “poor man’s stained glass,” can also be made from wooden posts with large nails, welded metal rods, or bottles simply stuck on the tines of an upended pitch fork, Rushing says. You can use any color bottle, but blue ones are considered the best, because of their centuries-old association with ghosts and spirits.


A Mississippi Delta homestead with a bottle tree shot by Felder Rushing.

The first natural bottle tree Grant (now curator of Steven F. Austin State University’s arboretum) saw was between Nacogdoches and Crockett, TX at an old home site. “I’ve always loved glass, junk, and art, so was immediately mesmerized with what it might be. I’ve been hooked ever since. I’m not a drinker but come from a long line of them. It’s my little part of carrying on a family tradition of staring into the yard and seeing pretty colors as the end result of empty bottles.”


Greg Grant’s garden in East Texas as shot by Greg.

How to Make Your Own Bottle Tree

Now that I live in the frigid north with sub-freezing winters, constructing a bottle tree was a bit of a challenge. There were no dead trees near the kitchen door, and I had cold temperatures to consider. A tree made of welded rebar would weather any temperature. I purchased one for under $20 and drove its tip into the ground before the soil froze.

Gathering the right bottles was more of a challenge than I thought. Like Grant, I’m not much of a drinker and didn’t have cache of colored bottles. So, I asked all my friends and family to save blue wine, whiskey or other bottles for me. Boy, did I get an interesting array! Cobalt blue glass, from long-neck wine bottles to round vodka bottles to short, stubby beer bottles, soon showed up on my doorstep. There were enough to complete several tree, so I could be picky about the esthetics.


My rebar bottle tree this year. Credit: Doreen G. Howard

Bottles go on the iron rod tree in early May after the chance of nights in the 20’s disappears. And, they are removed and stored in the basement just before Halloween. I wish I could have their beauty in the garden year-round like those in warmer climates, but I’m grateful for the ancient legend-based splendor they bring me during gardening season!

Do you have a bottle tree in your backyard?

Plant of the Week: Tree, Bottle

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in “Plant of the Week.” Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

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Plant of the Week

This modern bottle tree uses expensive blue wine bottles instead of the old standby, Milk of Magnesia bottles.

Culture is a funny thing that shapes the way we see and understand the world. Every culture is unique. However, none exists in a vacuum, so icons from one tradition are continually crossing the cultural boundaries of one group to be reinterpreted by another.

Druid priests who used evergreen trees as a part of their midwinter solstice celebrations would no doubt be bemused to see how Christians morphed their ancient tradition into the Christmas tree we now celebrate.

Bottle trees, folk symbols of the southern slave tradition, are enjoying a renaissance as they are showing up in gardens across the nation. How bottle trees migrated from the homes of poor African-American sharecroppers to suburban gardens deserves some attention.

Bottle trees, also sometimes called spirit trees, come in all shapes, sizes and colors. The best and most traditional use a dead crapemyrtle – a quintessential southern plant – adorned with blue bottles stuck willy-nilly on the cut ends of the branches. The cobalt blue milk of magnesia bottle was the standard, but brown snuff or beer bottles worked in a pinch. In their new life as folk art of American suburbia an eight-foot tall pole adorned with multicolored bottles seems to be the new favorite.

The bottle tree tradition arrived with slaves from the Congo region of Africa who believed evil spirits were trapped inside the bottles before they had a chance of getting into the home. Blue was the favorite color because spirits were especially attracted to it. In some traditions the spirits entered at night and were killed when the sun heated the bottle during the day. In others the bottles were periodically removed, plugged and set adrift in the river.

The Mississippi writer Eudora Welty worked for the WPA during the 1930s depression and photographed many bottle trees across her native state. She later wrote a short story, Livvie, in which bottle trees are featured. The modern revival of bottle trees seems to follow the relaxation of rigid rules about how to adorn a proper garden. Fun, playful and colorful is in; formality is out. Southern garden writers such as Felder Rushing from Jackson, Mississippi helped introduce them to a larger audience.

Protecting your home from bad luck – be it in the form of evil spirits, “haints” or evil doers – is only prudent and has a long tradition in most cultures. In the Ozarks, folklorist Vance Randolph says many hill people used multiple talismans for protection by using a horseshoe (with the end pointed up) over the door, by painting the door blue and for good measure nailing three nails in the doorjamb in a triangular arrangement (to represent the Trinity).

While rules are no longer in vogue, I feel some broad guidelines are in order. First, plant your bottle tree where it gets some sun. Preferably locate it where shafts of sunlight strike it through an opening in the canopy so that for a few magical minutes each day the bottle tree glows while the background is subdued in shadow. And remember, bottle trees are specimens. To be effective they must be sited where they stand out from the crowd to make a bold, startling statement.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist – Ornamentals
Extension News – January 16, 2009

The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.

The Origin of the Bottle Tree

Most believe that bottle trees got their roots in the Congo area of Africa in the 9th Century A.D. and that the practice was brought over by slaves who hung blue bottles from trees and huts as talismans to ward off evil spirits. But after extensive research, it’s now believed that bottle trees and their lore go back much farther in time, and originate farther north. It’s also believed that 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.

Tales began to circulate that spirits could live in bottles – probably from when people heard sounds caused by wind blowing over bottle openings.

It is believed that the spirits are dazzled by the colors of the bottles in the sun. Once they enter the bottle, they can’t find their way out, much like flies. Legend had it that empty glass bottles placed outside the home could “capture” roving (usually evil) spirits at night, and the spirit would be destroyed the next day in the sunshine.

Blue is a favorite choice of bottle tree lovers. Many believe that blue bottles also contain some healing qualities. Whatever your color of choice for your bottle tree, know that it is from a long and proud tradition of trapping and keeping bad things – including the Blues – away.

Bottle trees have been featured as accessories in most of the prestigious flower show garden displays all over the world. Additionally, glass bottles, which have long been placed in windows for color (“poor man’s stained glass”), are also commonly used to line flower beds.

Cubby’s

What Is A Bottle Tree: Learn About Bottle Tree History In Gardens

Garden art may be whimsical, practical or just plain outrageous, but it does express the gardener’s personality and interests. Bottle trees have a rich cultural background and provide a unique and recyclable option for homemade art. The practice hails from the Congo, but gardeners of any ilk will find bottle tree garden art a fun and fanciful way to brighten the natural landscape. Learn more here.

What is a Bottle Tree?

The bottle tree has a link to African beliefs and practices. It was thought the bottles trapped evil spirits that were killed when the sun’s rays pierced through the glass exterior. The practice moved to the United States southern region, where, originally, they were made from blue Milk of Magnesia bottles hung on a dead crape myrtle tree skeleton. Modern versions may feature brown or multicolored bottles ranged around a spoked pole.

This quirky folk art has a resurgence of popularity and follows no generalized rules. Unusual and interesting, bottle tree garden art is a unique and crafty way to repurpose old glass. Bottle tree ideas abound on the Internet and the practice is a fun way to introduce a distinctive piece of homemade art into your landscape.

Bottle Tree History

The noise made by wind playing across the mouth of a bottle evokes thoughts of ghosts, jinns and even fairies or other supernatural beings. Along the African Congo, superstition dictated that harmful evil spirits lurked around the living. The sound made by a bottle caught in the wind appeared to verify that theory.

If a bottle tree was erected, the spirits would become trapped in the bottles and could then be dealt with. Blue was apparently an attractive color to the spirits, so every effort was made to use cobalt bottles when erecting a tree. Bottle tree history indicates that the spirits were killed when the bottle heated in the sun, or sometimes the bottle was removed from the tree and set free in the river.

These beliefs and practices migrated with Congolese immigrants and slaves and became a southern tradition in many neighborhoods. The colorful trees are fun and playful and have made their way across the United States. Making a bottle tree for garden protection and interest is an easy and wacky way to make your landscape stand apart from the rest.

Tips on Making a Bottle Tree for Garden Art

There are no hard and fast rules on building a bottle tree. Bottle trees are supposed to be funny expressions of your garden personality. You can go traditional and choose the blue bottles, which may be difficult to collect, or simply use a range of colored bottles.

If you have a dead tree in your yard, prune the branches into an appealing scaffold and closer to the trunk, then simply hang the bottles as you wish along the limbs. A welded frame of rebar or iron bars works well if you have no dead trees in the landscape. You can also erect a thick post and adorn it with smaller sticks at attractive intervals around its form.

Creative bottle tree ideas are only limited by your imagination.

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