It is truly one of a kind.
To my knowledge there is only one bottle tree on the entirety of Martha’s Vineyard. A bottle tree is not something botanical you might find at the Polly Hill Arboretum or in any of our Island woodlands for that matter. It is, in fact, just what it sounds like, a tree or tree-like structure adorned with bottles.
You have likely passed this special rarity but may not have taken notice of it. At what is now Fiddlehead Farm (also known as Hillside Farm) on State Road in West Tisbury, there stands a single bottle tree on the porch.
Bottle trees are not only uncommon on Martha’s Vineyard; they are generally not found in New England and the northern states in general. Transplanted southerners, however, will recognize them, as they are more often found below the Mason Dixon line.
The history of these ornaments goes way back. Some say that bottle trees originated in northern Africa in the 9th century AD, though bottle tree scholars believe that the tradition is much older. Glass was made as early as 3500 BC, and hollow glass appeared around 1699 BC in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and there is evidence of the existence of these types of structures. The practice migrated north into Europe and eventually made its way to this country, most likely through the slave trade.
It is the function of bottle trees that keeps them vital even through the present day. What has been known from early on is that spirits like vessels. If you have any doubt, remember Aladdin, who rubbed a magic lamp. Imps or geniis (also spelled genies) were considered bad spirits that came out at night to wreak havoc. More recently, these spirits were known as haints, woody-boogers, or plat eyes, which are specifically the spirit of someone improperly buried.
To protect the home and family from the work of these spirits, bottle trees were constructed in the yard or garden. The spirits were attracted to the sparkly bottles and easily entered them at night. Getting out, however, was more difficult and the spirits became trapped. It was believed that they moaned all night from their efforts to escape, which would explain the noise from the wind blowing into those empty bottles. The sun would finish off the spirits, burning or destroying them as it rose.
For those wanting to get rid of the bottles full of evil spirits, simply cork the bottles and toss them down the river. (Actually, this approach is no longer recommended in our more ecologically conscious time.)
Though this whole story may sound unusual, Pulitzer prize winner Eudora Welty wrote about it in her short story, Livvie:
“Then coming around up the path from the deep cut of the Natchez Trace below was a line of bare crape myrtle trees with every branch of them ending in a colored bottle, green or blue.
“There was no word that fell from Solomon’s lips to say what they were for, but Livvie knew that there could be a spell put in trees, and she was familiar from the time she was born with the way bottle trees kept evil spirits from coming into the house — by luring them inside the colored bottles, where they cannot get out again.
“Solomon had made the bottle trees with his own hands over the nine years, in labor amounting to about a tree a year, and without a sign that he had any uneasiness in his heart, for he took as much pride in his precautions against spirits coming in the house as he took in the house, and sometimes in the sun the bottle trees looked prettier than the house did.”
Crape myrtles were popular trees for bottle trees, and the best of the bottle trees had cobalt blue bottles. Nowadays, they can be found on trees or on simple metal structures. One explanation for the blue bottles came from hoodoo folk magic. Blue represented both the earthly water and heavenly sky, and the intersection between the two was where the living and the dead come to a crossroads and interact.
So, although the brightly decorated holiday trees that you see everywhere this time of year will soon be losing their lights and adornments, take comfort in the fact that the bottle tree on State Road will go on working its magic all year long. And, if you sense that there are fewer evil or mischievous spirits in that particular neck of the woods, now you’ll know why.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.