I want to take a break from the Underground Railroad and switch gears for a minute and talk about Black American tradition – bottle trees.
Bottle trees are one of my favorite garden decorations, but they mean so much more. The are a connection to my ancestors and something that I have always felt a strong affinity for.
I first encountered them when I lived in the Mississippi Delta area, in Memphis, Tennessee. I would see bottles that were stuck on branch outside houses and hanging from trees. The beautiful colors would sparkle in the Tennessee sun and the sunlight would dapple across the glass like a big kaleidoscope in the trees.
When I started to research what these beautiful tree decorations were, I was amazed at how closely this connected me to my African roots.
Bottle trees are said to have originated in the Congo Region in Africa. The ancestors taught that bottle trees protect the home from evil spirits. The spirit gets trapped in the glass.
Glass bottle trees originated in Northern Africa during a period when superstitious people believed that a genii or imp could be captured in a glass bottle. Legend had it that empty glass bottles placed outside the home could capture roving (usually evil) spirits at night. The spirit would then be destroyed by the sunshine the next morning.
This practice was taken to Europe and North America by African slaves. While Europeans adapted them into hollow spheres known as “witch balls;” the practice of hanging bottles in trees became widespread in teh Southern states of North America, where they continue to be used today.
For my own personal Bottle Tree, which are also called Spirit Trees, I like to pay homage to my ancestors and to those who have come before me who have sacrificed for the betterment of my people. The hanging bottle and it’s symbolism of catching evil are a poignant reminder of how many of our people were mercilessly lynched in the past and continue to be lynched today.
Everyday I am reminded that the Light overcomes the evil.
So I keep a bottle tree outside my house. A couple actually.
And I know my ancestors are smiling.