Knoxville Botanical Garden: A Garden Grows from a Family Tree
Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum is a 47 acre public garden located in East Knoxville, just two miles from the center of the city. The history of the KBGA spans over 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.
The modern history of the KBGA property begins in the 1780’s with a land grant from our fledgling new nation to one David Wessel Howell of Buncombe County, North Carolina for his “exemplary” service during the American Revolutionary War. Ten years before Tennessee became a state David Howell planted an orchard, established a family farm and began selling fruits and vegetables to local families and businesses. He also began selling the trees, seeds and small plants settlers heading west needed to begin their own farms and gardens.
David’s farm slowly grew and several generations followed in their father’s footsteps. In the late 1870’s David’s great- grandson Sampson Sylvanus Howell established the SS Howell Nurseries and began to grow and sell ornamental plants in addition to the edibles that they had been selling for nearly one hundred years.
S.S. Howell passed the business down to four of his sons – Bruce, Richard, Carroll and Cole. Bruce and Richard, the eldest brothers, incorporated the business as the Howell Nurseries, Inc. in 1916 and changed their focus to ornamental plants. Under the two brothers the Howell Nurseries grew to include 13 locations stretching from Tennessee to Florida, including 1,100 acres in Sweetwater, Tennessee where the brothers and their kin developed many of the plants they became known for, including the Burford Holly (Ilex cornuta ‘Burfordii’) and the Cherokee Chief Dogwood (Cornus florida ‘Cherokee Chief’).
Cole’s youngest son, Joe N. Howell, took a slightly different path than the rest of his family. Joe studied landscape design at the University of Tennessee and fell in love with stonework. He bought 16 acres across the street from his family’s nursery and established the 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. When visitors pay a call to the Gardens today Joe’s impressive stonework is the first thing they notice.
When Joe Howell passed away in 1980 his daughter, Jenny Howell Jukes, left a successful career outside of the landscaping business to keep her father’s dream alive. And for 20 years she did just that. With her inherent knowledge of the land and the business and Joe’s experienced work crews Jenny ran the Joe N. Howell Nursery until 2002. As she approached her seventh decade with no Howells in line to nurture the future of the business Jenny began to search for a solution to preserve her family’s work. Several of her former customers recognized the historical importance of the property and began the process of forming a not for profit botanical garden.
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 Garden and Arboretum (KBGA) was formed by the summer of 2001 and with help from the ASLAN Foundation purchased the 16 acres belonging to Jenny. The remaining 28 acres of David W. Howells original estate were then sold to KBGA in May of 2004.