The Legend of the Lowcountry Bottle Tree

While Bottle Trees are not unique to the South, they are quite prolific here.

Photo courtesy of Ginger Wareham

In the South, we’re raised on grits, good manners, and ghost stories. Our frequent visitors from other parts of the country find our apparitional alarm quite charming, but a true southerner knows that there is nothing more ridiculous than a book with the title of “True Ghost Stories”, which seems a little like stating the obvious. 

My father, who has lived on St. Helena Island his entire life, once told his mother that he was scared of ghosts. She told him not to worry – that all the ghosts had floated into the creek and the fish ate them up. That cured his fear of ghosts, but then he wouldn’t eat fish. 

My family home on St. Helena Island is haunted, but my mother was not a believer until late one night when she passed my bedroom on the way to get something out of the dreaded room at the end of the narrow hallway upstairs, the door to which always remains closed. She was feeling quite confident until she walked past my 8-year-old self, and I sat straight up in bed, looked at her, and said “Beware!!”, then laid down and went back to sleep. An easy convert, she decided she could wait until morning to get whatever she was after.

My cousin, who lives a little ways down the dirt road in a house built before the Civil War, will confirm that she has a ghost named Poogah that lives under her house, but she doesn’t like talking about him. He causes quite a bit of mischief, and she once called for my uncle to come over and deal with him. Ever ready to be of assistance, my uncle stood by the crawl space, drew himself up, and yelled in a loud voice, “Poogah – you behave yourself!” (Lest you wonder, I promise he was sober when it happened.)

I come from a family of believers and, if you call us zealots, I will not deny it. 

We have ways on the island to deal with such things – ways that were handed down to us through Gullah tradition. Enter the Bottle Tree.

While Bottle Trees are not unique to the south, they are quite prolific here. There is some controversy surrounding the true origin of the tree, since some historians place its beginnings in the Congo Area of Africa in the 9th century; others trace its genesis back as far as 1600 B.C. to Egypt and Mesopotamia. 

One thing is certain, though, and that is that stories began to be told of the ability of the bottles to capture spirits, and this lore traveled to the southeastern United States with the slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Lowcountry Bottle Tree
Bottle Tree Photo taken at the Penn Center by Ginger Wareham

The classic Bottle Tree is made of cobalt blue bottles placed on the ends of a Crape Myrtle tree. The belief is that spirits are attracted to the dazzling glass (who doesn’t love a little bling?), but once they enter the bottle, they become trapped and can’t find their way out. Kind of like going into an Ikea. 

At night, roving spirits (typically evil ones) are trapped in the bottles, and the sunlight destroys them during the day. You’ll know, however, which bottles still have spirits in them, because you’ll hear their eerie moaning when the wind blows.

So if you’re having a little trouble with banging doors, or missing items, or maybe just have the level of creeps I get just thinking of opening that door at the end of the hallway, perhaps it’s time to find some blue bottles and stick them on the end of some tree branches. It can’t hurt, and you never know – you might get lucky and snag Poogah the Poltergeist. I’m sure my cousin would be grateful, but I also think that secretly, she’d miss him.