Spirit Trees’ Early Roots
Like so many Southern cultural traditions, the roots of Spirit Trees are hard to pin-point with certainty. Most historians and folklorists agree that Spirit Trees originated in West Africa, likely in the Kingdom of Kongo. They might have started as a version of nkisi, objects believed to hold spirits or spiritual powers. Or maybe they were another version of the custom of hanging pieces of broken pottery from trees to protect freshly sown fields, which a French priest observed on the northern coast of Kongo in 1776. Regardless of where exactly they came from, by the end of the 18th century, "Bottle Trees" had found their way to the Americas, and were being made by enslaved people in South America, the Caribbean, and the American South.Enslaved Africans weren’t the only people who brought their customs and beliefs across the Atlantic. In 17th and 18th century England, people hung hollow glass spheres called Witch Balls in windows to ward off evil spirits, a custom that made its way to New England and then down into the South. The spread of Spirit Trees into White communities might have had to do with the fact that this African tradition aligned with the things White Americans already believed and practiced. In the bayous of southern Louisiana, Spirit Trees have become part of Cajun folk art.
Modern Spirit Trees
By the 1930s, "Bottle Trees" had become a fixture in yards across the rural south and Appalachia. Eudora Welty photographed Bottle Trees as part of her documentation of Mississippi life for the Works Progress Association, and they play a central role in one of her short stories. In the Southern version of the tradition, bottles are often blue (maybe because of the belief that “haint blue” wards off evil spirits, repels garden pests, or maybe just looks pretty), but the bottles on contemporary Spirit Trees can come in a variety of colors. In fact, often, contemporary Spirit Trees aren’t trees at all; bottles and charms are hung on rebar or metal frames.
Spirit Trees In New Orleans
While some people still believe in the power of a Spirit Tree’s bottles to capture malevolent spirits, just as many people aren’t connected to any of the folklore; they just like this quintessential form of Southern garden art. That’s often the case with Bottle Trees in and around New Orleans, where the spirituality of the mostly-rural tradition is less widely known. Here, Bottle Trees are incorporated into yards and gardens for their beauty. That doesn’t mean they’re only ornamental. Each Bottle Tree is unique and personal. Every choice makes a Spirit Tree special, and can mean something different to the maker and the viewer. This is part of why New Orleanian Spirit Trees are often less concerned with keeping away bad spirits than they are with attracting good ones, or celebrating the memories attached to the bottles and charms, or to the act of making the tree. They’re a reminder to find beauty and magic in everyday objects, and to make space for good spirits in the spaces they inhabit.
Terri Simon (Spirit Trees- Cultural Contributor)
Terri Simon is a writer and researcher who specializes in Black history and literature, and New Orleans history and culture from the colonial era to the present. A proud trivia nerd and pubquiz host, she is also a program coordinator for the nation's first academic quiz competition for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.