Glass in the Garden

Dale Chihuly is once again putting the focus on glass as an artistic addition to gardens through the exhibit that is on view at Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. However, glass has been making a statement where gardens are concerned for centuries.

Travel through the South and you’re sure to notice a proliferation of colorful trees. No, not magnolias or crepe myrtles, but bottle trees. The trees have a fascinating history. The story begins around 1600 B.C., when glass bottles began to appear in Egypt and North Africa. Over the ensuing centuries, in areas like the Congo, people adopted the superstition that the bottles held magical powers in that they enticed evil spirits to enter them at night. Unable to escape, the spirits were destroyed when sunlight hit the bottles at daybreak. In order to protect themselves, their families and their homes, people began hanging the bottles in trees that were near their dwellings. Unfortunately, the bottles could not protect the Congolese people from the evils of enslavement.

Enslaved Africans continued the bottle tree tradition in America, notably in the South, where a new spin was added in that blue bottles became the norm, as the color was perceived to have healing properties. It was also thought to possess the power to ward off evil spirits. Hanging the bottles in crepe myrtle trees was also significant, as myrtle trees are referenced in the Bible and represent freedom and an escape from slavery.

What was once a superstition went on to become a treasured folk tradition that is widely seen in gardens, parks and museums throughout the South. It also gave way to the practice of placing blue bottles in windows, which led to the term “poor man’s stained glass.” Of late, bottle trees have taken on the aura of being “green,” in that they provide a way to artistically recycle bottles. I’m sure the wine industry loves the fact that people are guzzling wine just to obtain blue bottles (I’m just saying!). In addition, the “trees” don’t require water. You can use a tree that’s already growing in your yard or buy a metal version (as well as bottles) through sources such as Plow & Hearth, Gardener’s Supply and, of course, Amazon. Locally, you may find a blacksmith or metal fabricator willing to make you a “tree.”

Since I have southern roots, I’ve always wanted a bottle tree. When I saw one at Plow & Hearth in Harrisburg a few years ago, I had to have it. I started out by decorating it with a mix of colors, but then bowed to tradition and opted for the cobalt blue bottles. When the coastal look became a hit a few years ago, turquoise bottles became all the rage, so I do a mix of cobalt and turquoise.

Through visiting my son, Charlie, in North Carolina, I’ve discovered that southern garden centers are hip to the bottle tree craze. Entire sections of the centers are stocked with bottles that come in an array of colors. As I’ve discovered, people are switching out colors to match the changing seasons and holidays.

Such an idea struck me two years ago as August was threatening to turn into September. Looking at my bottle tree, it occurred to me that blue doesn’t exactly say “fall.” Then, visions of Charlie’s favorite garden center, Green Side Up in Fayetteville, popped into my head. Our week on the Outer Banks was coming up so I called him and asked that he go to Green Side Up and buy me orange, yellow, red and purple bottles. God love him, he showed up at the beach with bags of bottles!

I’m also tempted by Green Side Up’s idea of using green and red bottles for the holidays but am afraid they would not fare well in our temperatures. So, I decorate my tree with lights and weather-friendly ornaments for Christmas and eggs and ribbon for Easter.

Garden art by Kevin Lehman

If you want to take it up a notch, you could always contact Kevin Lehman of the Lancaster Creative Factory. Kevin has put his artistic talents to work to make glass and ceramic art for the garden he has created with Stacy Martin. Kevin’s tree is absolutely gorgeous!

Chihuly at Biltmore

Through January 5, 2025

Dale Chihuly’s glass art can be seen in the galleries and gardens at Amherst at Deerpark on the grounds of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. Information: Biltmore.com.

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