-When Eelekoa Kanamee was growing up on the island of Kauai in Hawaii, he loved to race down to the beach after a big storm to hunt for bottles that had washed ashore.
The cobalt blue ones are his favorites to this day. It's a preference he shares with partner Alan Petravich, who had his own blue-bottle collection when the two met in California in 2004.
Both collectors work at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square now, and live on the grounds in a rental house they call "the blue-bottle cottage." It's named for their shared blue-bottle collection and for the bottle tree out in their garden.
The bottles are wedged, upside down, on the lower branches of a yew tree that is oddly bare on the bottom and green on top. "When the sun comes up, the blue actually glows. It looks liquid," says Kanamee, 41.
"It gets us through winter," adds Petravich, 42.
Bottle trees are a long-standing Southern thing, embedded in the life tapestries of African Americans, especially in the Mississippi Delta. Traditionally, live or dead crape myrtle and cedar trees were decorated with bottles -- often blue Milk of Magnesia ones -- intended to trap evil spirits and prevent them from entering the house.
But bottle trees are popping up in other parts of the country, as chic -- or not so chic -- garden art, made on a base of powder-coated steel, iron rebar, or odd pieces of metal.
Garden-supply companies sell them. So do entrepreneurs with catchy names like "Bottle Tree Bob." And enterprising artists and welders are reinterpreting the original form, using blue, green, amber, red, and clear bottles to create high-end trees, chandeliers, arbors, hummingbird feeders, fountains, even magazine racks.
"Bottle trees are whimsies to some folks, folk art to others, and an evocative art form to yet others," says Felder Rushing of Jackson, Miss., author of 15 gardening books, who has studied bottle trees in the United States and around the world for many years.
The newer ones may also represent what sculptor Virginia Maksymowicz describes as "outsider art" crossing over into more sophisticated forms. "The bottle may also be a representation of the human body with a spirit inside, which may be why artists like them so much," says Maksymowicz, associate professor of art at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster.
Whatever you call them, Dudley Pleasants of Glenwood, Miss., has discovered that money grows on bottle trees, too. Manager of a 4,000-acre corn, soybean, and cotton farm, Pleasants makes rolled-steel bottle trees on the side.
They've have gotten so popular, both inside and outside the South, that he says he is pressed for time as never before.
"I have a lot of men who call me and say, 'I got to have a bottle tree. My wife says she wants one,' and I understand," says Pleasants, also known as "the bottle tree man," who got into this sideline because his own wife wanted one.
Stephanie Dwyer, a metal artist from Jackson, didn't know what bottle trees were when she moved from California to Mississippi in 2006. She came to live on property her mother owned, to do her art, and immediately upon her arrival, an aunt asked her to make a bottle tree.
The aunt drove Dwyer around to show her some. "They had no soul. They didn't speak to me," recalls Dwyer, who designed her own, highly stylized version and moved on from there.
Bottle trees, arbors, and specialty items now account for 80 percent of her income. "Bottle trees are taking care of me," she says.
Several of her trees are displayed at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale, Miss., a mecca for blues musicians and fans.