History

Knoxville Botanical Garden: A Garden Grows from a Family Tree

Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum is a 44-acre secret garden paradise in East Knoxville. It is rooted two miles from Knoxville’s city center and welcomes all dreamers seeking an escape from the everyday. The history of the Knoxville Botanical Garden spans more than 200 years of family, flowers, and friends. It is the story of how a daughter’s dream to preserve the legacy of her family—the Howell family—was brought to life by a gift of love from the community.


On this East Tennessee ridge overlooking the Smokies, the land granted to him by North Carolina in 1786 for his service during the American Revolutionary War, David W. Howell made his American dream come true. Ten years before Tennessee became a state, David planted an orchard, established a family farm, and began growing fruits and vegetables for sale to local families and businesses. This small farm would eventually grow to be the oldest continually operating business in the history of Knox County—and a remarkable botanical treasure.


David soon made a name for himself, and his farm blossomed for many prosperous years. In this orchard, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. David’s son, Sylvanus, continued the family farming business, and likewise, the youngest of Sylvanus’ eight children, Sampson Sylvanus (S.S.), followed in his father’s footsteps. In the late 1870s, S.S. established the S.S. Howell Nurseries and started selling the plants themselves as well as the produce. With three generations of growers now to its credit, the Howell family had mastered wondrous feats of production—including strawberries reported to be the size of hen’s eggs—and had cultivated numerous loyal customers.


The family business thrived and was passed down to another generation of Howells. Four of S.S.’s five sons—Bruce, Richard, Carroll, and Cole—were successful in the Howell nursery business. Bruce and Richard, the oldest brothers, helped their father run the business for many years until S.S. died in 1914. In 1916, the brothers incorporated under the name Howell Nurseries, Inc. They changed the focus of their business from produce to ornamental plants and expanded the operation to 13 locations, stretching from Tennessee to Florida. Richard, a nurseryman active in the Southern Nurseryman’s Association, was a natural for managing the organization.


Though he was renowned as a “venerable plans and planting businessman” from his years serving as president of Howell Nurseries, in his heart, Bruce was a horticulturist—growing was his passion. At the nursery’s 1,100-acre breeding site strategically located along the railroad tracks in Sweetwater, Tennessee, Bruce introduced such horticultural delights as Cherokee Chief, the first-ever red-flowering dogwood. Having ready access to the railroad made for efficient transportation of nursery stock to the satellite locations or to customer sites. The Howells nurtured a reputation for unique horticultural imports across the Southeast. Many of the rare or unusual specimens Bruce loved are preserved on the Garden grounds; some are among the oldest living examples of their kind in the region.

 

 

Cole, the youngest of S.S.’s sons, took over management of the nursery when Richard died. Cole was a charming gentleman, a savvy businessman, and a keen plantsman. Once, in a cemetery in Atlanta, he discovered the young Burfordi holly that would become one of the nursery’s most popular specimens. He filled promenades, markets, and coliseums with his family’s cultivars— sometimes to commemorate an event, sometimes simply to add beauty to a busy shopping area. He created Azalea Sundays in springtime, inviting people to stop by the nursery after church to see the fields awash in pastel petals, and maybe take a few shrubs home with them. He became recognized as the folksy voice of Howell Nurseries through a regular Saturday mini-column in the newspaper called “Diggin’ Amongst the Flowers,” which he penned for more than 4 years—and because he never missed an opportunity to answer the office phone and talk at length with his customers.


When the Great Depression hit in the early 1930s, Howell Nurseries pruned down its operation to two locations: the original Knoxville site and the Sweetwater growing center. As the nation began to recover, the popularity of personal automobiles made it possible for families to live the suburban lifestyle, where homes were surrounded by expansive lawns in need of decorative plants. This increase in business sustained Howell Nurseries for several decades. Cole was joined in the family business by his oldest son, Bryan, and daughter, Florence. Cole and Bryan developed the Sweetwater red dogwood. Bryan earned the family’s first degree in landscape architecture. After the passing of Cole, Bryan took over the day-to-day operations of the Knoxville site. Together with Florence and her husband Carl Wallis, a fellow landscape architect, they changed the name to C.B. Howell Nurseries and expanded their services to include landscaping.

 


Meanwhile, Cole’s younger son, Joe, had begun to hoe a slightly different row in the family business. Joe studied landscape design and fell in love with stonework. He bought 16 acres across the street from his family’s nursery and established Joe N. Howell Landscape Nurseries in 1942. On this land, Joe constructed stone walls and small, round gatehouses that showcased his design capabilities and accentuated the natural landscape. He specialized in importing rare shrubs and trees, especially Asian species and weeping varieties, for use in his designs. He was a faithful sponsor of the budding Dogwood Arts Festival and its spectacular flower show. Joe’s work became widely recognized and wildly popular. His landscaping was said to complement many of Knoxville’s businesses and prominent residences. When visitors pay a call to the Gardens today, Joe’s playful stone architecture is among the first things they notice—it welcomes them and invites them to wander inside a world of enchantment and whimsical wonder.


When Joe died in 1980, his daughter, Jenny Jukes, left a flourishing career outside of the landscaping business to keep her father’s dream alive. And with the dedication of Joe’s knowledgeable crew, she managed to do so for 20 years. Like Joe and her grandfather Cole, she possessed a good business sense, and she knew this land well, down to the taste of her grandmother’s pie made from the particular hard variety of pears that her great-great-great grandfather had planted on that ridge so long ago. Now well into her 60s and with no Howells in line to nurture the future of the business, Jenny had to find another solution to preserve her family’s work. Across the street at the C.B. Howell Nurseries, Bryan, Florence, and Carl were in a similar situation: no longer as young and energetic as they’d once been and with no heir apparent to carry on for the sixth generation of the Howell family. But, as garden folk know, spring follows even the hardest of winters. As one dream was fading, another was beginning to germinate.


Jim McDonough—a local architect and former customer of Joe’s and Jenny’s—fondly remembers a property he was renovating, decades ago, and his meeting a Howell for the first time. He’d called Joe Howell for an estimate on landscaping an English garden, Joe’s specialty. Joe drove up in his convertible Eldorado, graceful and grand, and said, “We can do it for $25,000.” Jim chuckles now; that was half what he’d paid for the house. In early 2001, when Jim heard through the grapevine that the fairyland he’d long admired was for sale and facing possible extinction, he enlisted neighbors from the surrounding community, concerned citizens, foundations, and organizations to help save the overgrown and overdue historic landmark.


The proposed botanical garden was a dream-come-true scenario for Jenny, and she jumped at the chance to save her family’s work and to honor its place in local history. The Knoxville Botanical Gardens and Arboretum (KBGA) was formed by mid-2001 and purchased the 16 acres belonging to Jenny Jukes in 2002. Meanwhile, the C.B. Howell Nurseries continued to operate until 2003, taking the Howell family legacy of running the longest continuing business in Knox County’s history to the 217-year mark. The remaining 28 acres of David W. Howell’s original estate were then sold to KBGA in May 2004.

 


Strategic partners and consultants from Chanticleer Gardens, The Garden Conservancy, Yew Dell Gardens, and Martha Stewart Living have helped the KBGA  Board of Directors to identify the property’s unique contribution to the region. “Showcasing plant materials that perform well in East Tennessee,” the Garden will feature plants and trees native to this region as well as the existing rare and exotic ones already established—some 2,000 plants have already been identified and tagged. Knoxville Botanical Garden plans to invite nationally and internationally recognized master gardeners to design a series of interconnected pleasure gardens—like museum galleries displaying the works of great artists. The gardens might include reflecting pools, fountains, contemporary sculpture, tree-lined pathways called allées, or meditation areas. Long-term plans include an amphitheatre, where festivals, events, and concerts can be held. With its spectacular views and lush surroundings, the Garden is already an ideal and inviting location for special occasions, such as weddings, revivals, and reunions, or simple escapes, like picnics and sunset strolls.


The Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum will also provide educational and economic benefits to the surrounding community and the region, “fostering a deeper appreciation of the natural world by connecting us to the soil and to the living things it produces and nurtures.” Connections with local schools will directly benefit students and educators in the appreciation of nature, art, and the outdoors. Garden clubs and private gardeners will visit the grounds for the quality of its unique species and its unusual beauty. Professionals in the botanical, gardening, nursery, and arborist community will make presentations and explore opportunities for partnership with and for the Garden.

 


The Howells were more than the smiling faces who worked at the magical place where many Knoxvilians remember going with their parents to buy plants; they were employers, supporters of the Dogwood Arts Festival and other civic events, landscapers who created and cared for many of the yards in the community, and friends who stopped by a neighbor’s house with a poinsettia for the holidays. The Howell family and its nurseries have fostered an appreciation for the natural beauty of this area and have had a tremendous influence on the Knoxville community—a connection that will continue to be a focus on the grounds.  The Garden will provide a gathering place for the community, where fun events will draw children and families together. The Garden also will be seen as a natural extension of the collective “backyard” of its immediate neighbors from the surrounding community and downtown Knoxville.


Since 2002, the Garden’s grounds crews have been working to restore the property’s extraordinary beauty. There’s a white lilac tree so tall, its pendulous perfumed flowers can only be savored with the aid of a breeze. The crimson canopy of an ancient Japanese maple stretches the length of two of Joe Howell’s signature Cadillacs. It’s always Opposite Day for the Darlington oak, whose leaves color and fall in the spring. A concert of birdsong is performed daily by the kaleidoscope of feathered friends who find sanctuary here each year. A riotous troupe of contorted filberts—all corkscrews and curly Qs—dances its own version of The Twist. Standing guard over this gentle ridge since the 1860s, S.S. Howell’s majestic cedars of Lebanon—coincidentally, a biblical symbol of eternity—have the Great Smoky Mountains locked in a long-distance staring contest. And in the middle of it all, one family tree, with deepset roots, quietly welcomes a new day.