What’s a Bottle Tree—and How Do I Make One?

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Bold, recycled and ideal for anyone with a not-so-green thumb, bottle trees are a Southern tradition with deep roots.

Plastic gnomes and flamingos aside, the most perplexing objects I’ve seen sprouting from gardens are glass bottles. This upcycled specimen—a series of colorful, empty vessels branching out from a central trunk—is a bottle tree, and it’s as much a Southern tradition as pecan pie. But its origins reach back centuries and across continents.

What Is a Bottle Tree?

It’s generally agreed that bottle trees date back, at the very least, to the 9th century Congo. However, some garden gurus believe they go back even further—as early as 1600 B.C., when hollow glass bottles first appeared in Mesopotamia. In any event, the tradition carried over to the southern U.S. through the slave trade. Legend had it that the bottles trapped evil spirits. For that reason, bottles in cobalt blue—a healing color—were preferred. Similarly, Southerners have long painted porch ceilings blue to ward off bad spirits.

Today, bottle trees have spread across the country. One of the most impressive displays sits right on Route 66 in Oro Grande, California. With thousands of vessels glistening in the sun, Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch is more like a bottle forest.

How to Make a Bottle Tree

The quickest way to get your garden glass going is to find a suitable tree and simply slide your bottles onto its branches. But if that’s not an option, you can always buy a pre-constructed metal frame.

Prefer to go the DIY route? Bury a round wooden fence post about 2 feet deep (and add concrete for an extra sturdy base). Next, drill holes at a downward angle and insert metal rods for branches. Be sure to leave enough room between each rod for a bottle.

For a simpler DIY project, turn a tomato cage upside down and bend the wire prongs to create branches. Add bottles and… voila! You may spend longer peeling the labels (soak them in a vinegar and water mixture) off upcycled bottles than building this frame.

What You’ll Need to DIY a Bottle Tree

  • Appropriately named and family owned, Bottle Tree stocks sturdy steel frames. They also have colorful glass bottles in blue, green and amber.
  • For traditionalists, North Mountain Supply sells cobalt blue bottles by the half-dozen.
  • Looking for a different shape? Get a bottle bush from Gardener’s Supply.

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Amelia Mularz
Amelia is a writer who covers both food and travel. Her favorite pilgrimages include Mexico City for the mole, Tel Aviv for the hummus and Wisconsin for the curds. She lives in Los Angeles, where she can be found forever exploring the city's street taco scene.