Sunday, June 5, 2011

Umbria, Southern Style: the Bottle Tree Cometh

    When the peach tree that shaded our terrace at Yellow House started to die, we thought we'd have to take it out. Poor ole thing had been producing peaches as hard as baseballs for the last five years, it had bunions growing where branches had been trimmed in other generations, and early this spring it developed a terrible case of a wet black fungus that harbored zillions of little black bugs. 

    One sunny spring morning, we decided the old tree had to go. Il Magnifico and I dug around the storerooms #1, 2 and 3, and eventually found a little rusted saw and got to work on the misshapen branches. The flimsy instrument kept catching in the wood, so making any headway was like a trip to the gym -- in about five minutes our tongues were hanging out. Panting like hound dogs, we flopped down on the sofa and a long simmering idea surfaced in my Alabama- bred brain: our peach tree would have a second life, as a bottle tree. At last, I would have a little piece of the American South in my own backyard in Umbria (not counting the Mardi Gras beads strung in the olive trees).

    Il Mag went to the hardware store in Bastardo and brought back the biggest galvanized nails I've ever seen.  I scrounged around among the boxes and debris in the various storerooms for bottles, blue bottles to be exact. I've been following Felder Rushing's gardening show on Mississippi public radio for years, as well as his website (, so I knew from the hundreds of photos of bottle trees from across Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina and other southern states that this was the color I wanted. 

    According to Felder's history, the desire for bottles trees originated in Arabia after glass was invented, spread through central Africa, and was brought to the southern US by slaves as early as the 17th century.  In the South, bottle trees were a way to have something inexpensive and pretty in the front yard--bottles catch the light, shine brightly at dawn when the sun shines through them, glow at sunset. Cobalt blue bottles have been said to capture and banish the bad spirits, keeping them away from the house. I certainly wasn't going to have a bottle tree without blue bottles and I could find just one. That was not going to do.
© Eudora Welty Collection,  Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1930s

    A call went out for blue bottles. Friends in Mississippi promised to bring us some, my cousin in Alabama passed along an old Milk of Magnesia, and my aunt in Virginia finished off some German wine and passed along the empty. A Brit with no earthly idea what I was talking about dutifully kept her eyes open and found some blue bottles containing water from Wales. I was making progress.
Ann and Dale
   Finally, our friends arrived from Oxford, MS, bringing with them a carefully packed box containing six beautiful blue bottles, along with their unmatched expertise on the South. Ann Abadie is associate director of the Center for Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi and an authority on all things Southern; her husband, Dale, is a historian. With them were law prof John Robin Bradley and, his wife, artsy Laura Bradley. With this level of Mississippi firepower on our terrace in Italy, we had no doubt our bottle tree would be imbued with a special magic. We each hammered in a nail and placed a blue bottle, with Laura's critical eye determining the perfect spot. 
   That was day before yesterday. Since then I've added an antique bottle from Cape Town to crown my tree -- since the idea for bottle trees came to the American South from Africa, I think its pale green glass is a fitting addition. Dale says I should move the bottles around once in awhile, for aesthetic reasons if not to confuse the roaming bad spirits. I might even consider adding red or yellow to the mix if I happen to find any. Any and all contributions will be accepted.
Bottle tree experts come to help

Bottle by bottle
   Fun reading about bottle trees:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can bring some when I come, too!