The Legend of the Southern Bottle Tree

The countryside of the American South is haunted. Given the history of the region, it is not hard to understand why.

A bottle tree made from a simple wooden post

If you travel across the South from the Lowcountry of Charleston to the Mississippi Delta you will find many superstitions about the dead, and you will see firsthand some of the ways that Southerners protect their homes from the souls that have not moved on from the physical world and have chosen instead to wander in the night.

One of the tools used by Southerners to deal with evil spirits and wandering “haints”, as they are often called, is the bottle tree.

The bottle tree can be traced to African slaves brought to the Charleston area in the 1700’s. The descendants of these slaves, known as the Gullah, still reside along the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia and they still practice many of the traditions taught to them through the generations. Their ancestors were some of the first people in the South to use bottle trees to protect their homes from evil spirits. The tradition has spread and now bottle trees can be seen adorning yards from Virginia to Mississippi.

The idea behind the bottle tree is relatively simple. Originally, the branches of a Crepe Myrtle tree were cut short and empty bottles were placed upside down on the stubby limbs. The Crepe Myrtle was chosen because it symbolized freedom from bondage and life in the Promised Land. But nowadays you will see bottle trees that come in many forms, some made from real trees and other made from wrought iron or just simple wooden posts. But it doesn’t really matter what is used for the tree. What is important are the bottles.

The legend goes that evil spirits are drawn to the bottles when the light of the moon reflects off the glass. The spirits enter the bottles and become trapped inside where they are forced to stay for the rest of the night. To signal their displeasure at being confined they can often be heard moaning when the wind blows through the bottle tree. When the sun rises the next morning, the sunlight burns and destroys the evil spirits trapped inside the bottles. The empty bottles are then free to lie in wait for the next wandering soul that may happen by when nightfall arrives.

You will see bottle trees made from bottles of many colors, but the deep cobalt blue bottle is often the most preferred color since that color is thought to symbolize the crossroads between the realm of the living and that of the dead. It is believed that it is in this realm where wayward souls reside.

To someone not born and raised in the South, the legend of the bottle tree may seem a bit ridiculous. But Southern land carries many scars. Given slavery, the bloodshed of the Civil War and the poverty and hard times that followed, it is not hard to believe that there may be more than a few restless souls wandering through the night in the Southern countryside.

And many of them may not have the best of intentions.