Looking for a holiday gift for the gardener who has everything?
How about a bottle tree?
The decorative "trees" -- with colored glass bottles for "branches" -- are a tradition in the rural South and the Caribbean. But now they're becoming a popular garden ornament in northern climes, as well as the subject of a forthcoming book and a recent front-page story in the Wall Street Journal.
"Bottle trees are the modern pink flamingo," garden author Felder Rushing told the Journal.
Gardener Maggie McDonald, who lives in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., had been pining for one ever since she first saw a homemade one at a friend's place. "I've wanted a bottle tree for so long," she said. She looked without success, until her husband located a bottle-tree artist just an hour's drive away.
McDonald bought her "tree," trimmed with cobalt-blue bottles, in June and displays it near a steppingstone embedded with matching blue glass. "It's so pretty!" she said. "When the black-eyed Susans are in bloom, it really looks sharp."
Jerry Swanson, the Princeton, Wis., artist who made McDonald's tree, has about two dozen of his Bottle Tree Creations (www.bottletreecreations.com) on his property and has sold them to customers in 38 states.
A longtime bottle collector and master gardener, he got the idea to decorate trees while looking at his bare winter landscape. "I was trying to think of a way to use my blue bottles," he said.
He experimented with a few, and did some research, quickly learning that his idea wasn't new or original but has a long and colorful history.
"What intrigued me was the bottle-tree story," he said.
According to his research, bottle trees have their roots in ninth-century Africa, where the tradition for honoring deceased relatives was to surround the grave with plates, sometimes attached to sticks or hung from trees.
Later, the slave trade brought the tradition to the Americas, where it morphed into hanging colorful bottles on trees, in hopes of attracting and distracting evil spirits that might be lurking near the house.
Bottles of many colors were used, but blue was thought to be the most effective, Swanson said. (Blue-painted doors, window frames and porches are still common in the South as evil-spirit repellent.)
Swanson makes trees in many colors but his most popular are cobalt blue, he said. "Because it's so rare. There aren't many wines that come in blue bottles. They don't even make 'em in the U.S." (He gets them from Mexico, and from a nearby restaurant that collects them for him.)
Swanson's bottle trees cost $40 to $500, depending on size, and often he delivers them personally to customers in the Twin Cities. "Shipping a bottle tree is not the easiest," he said.
Not everyone thinks bottle trees belong in Northern gardens, however. "They have their place in Southern culture, but usually they risk looking totally tacky and like someone's leftover party binge," New Jersey landscape designer Susan Cohan told the Wall Street Journal. "It's a country gardeners' thing. Not something I'd ever want or recommend for my clients."
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784