Knoxville Botanical Gardens and Arboretum Hires New CEO to Continue the Howell Family Legacy

Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum, Howell House, April 2024
Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum, CEO Sharon Moore, April 2024

Set on 44 acres of beautifully landscaped history, the Knoxville Botanical Gardens and Arboretum (KBGA) sits patiently waiting to be discovered by the many Knoxvillians and tourists who simply don’t know it’s there. The new CEO, Sharon Moore, wants to change that. Sharon says, “Can we become an iconic botanical garden that is a destination? We are an attraction. It’s time to become a destination.” Moore also wants to be a key asset in revitalizing the East Knoxville community.

Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum, April 2024

The land on which the Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum sits today, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2022, is a small portion of the land originally belonging to the Howell family. Here is a snapshot from the KBGA of the rich history of the gardens and land. For a more detailed history, click HERE.

Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum, Joe Howell and wife, April 2024
  • “Howell Nursery was established in 1786, three years after the land grant was made to David W. Howell and five years before the settlement community of Knoxville was established in 1791.
  • When it closed in 2003, Howell Nursery had operated continuously for 217 years, making it the longest operating business in Tennessee and one of the longest in the country.
  • Pink flowering dogwood was discovered by Bruce Howell in Prosser’s Woods behind Chilhowee Park around 1900 leading to cultivation of the “Cherokee Chief” Cornus florida
  • Howell Nursery received the first plant patent for Crape Myrtle (Lagerstromenia indica) “William Toovey” in 1927. The cultivar is still widely used today
  • The Howells were widely known for their many varieties of azaleas that totaled in the hundreds. They hybridized over fifty types.   
  • The Howell Family is responsible for inventing and propagating numerous plants and introducing multiple varieties to the nursery industry, including
      • Sweetwater red flowering dogwood (Cornus florida rubrum) 
      • Cherokee Chief red flowering dogwood (Cornus florida rubrum) 
      • Weeping privet (Ligustrum sinensis pendula),
      • Burfords Chinese holly (Ilex Cornuta).
      • Crape myrtle William Toovey (Lagerstromenia indica)

        Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum, one of many greenhouses on the property, group setting up to film a PBS episode, April 2024
  • Howell Nurseries had many business firsts, such as the first
    • International side crank truck in Knoxville in 1900
    • Tree mover in the southeast which was a 1929 Studebaker built by William & Harvey of Kansas City, Kansas
    • Power sprayer in Tennessee
    • Melroe Bobcat in Knox County
    • Two-way radios in Knox County”

I had no idea how steeped in history this land is and the immense legacy the Howell family created here. It was a fascinating story, and seeing all the personal touches they made around the grounds made it even more intriguing.

The last Howell to own and run the business was Jenny Howell Jukes. A Howell owned the land from 1786 to 2001 when Jenny worked to help preserve it for future generations. The KGBA was formed and purchased the land from her.

With 200+ years of history, you can imagine the great value in the structures remaining on the property.

“The Howell House, now serving as the Visitor’s Center and Offices, is a premier example of minimal traditional style architecture utilizing pared down design enhanced by high-quality materials. The Howell House features:

  • Tennessee marble – 6 different colors
  • Tennessee stone sourced from Lambert Quarry in South Knoxville, Crab Orchard, and English Mountain near Dandridge
  • Each room has distinctive paneling totaling 14 different kinds of wood.
  • Dining room mural photographed and produced by Thompson Photography another significant Knox County business and family.
  • Red clay tile roof
  • Copper overhangs and gutters by Towe Ironworks of Knoxville
  • Iron balcony, walkway, doors and railings also by Towe Ironworks
  • Original Geneva kitchens (2) in the Youngstown style

Additional historic structures include two miles of stone walls, four stone roundhouses, four greenhouses, the S.S. Howell Nursery Office, Seed Cottage, Carriage House, and equipment buildings.”

One of Moore’s biggest challenges now is to build the business side of this (FREE to the public) nonprofit, improve the donor systems, and strengthen the nonprofit infrastructure. Having spent many years in the nonprofit world, Sharon has held leadership positions and worked in programming. Most notably, she spent 12 years as the Director of Development at Zoo Knoxville. She is ready to tackle this role and use the experience she has gained throughout her career to shore up KBGA for the future of Knoxville.

KBGA is currently in a mini-campaign season to address water intrusion and disrepair in the Howell House. Several areas in the home are in disrepair due to age and deferred maintenance, and they are doing some emergency mitigation to bring the house back up to its period condition. This is an important project as the house generates revenue through events in the space, is home to the offices for staff, and is the only restroom on the grounds that is open to the public. They have applied for grant funding that would address the cedar shake siding, roof, awnings and gutters, and in the meantime, you can participate in helping with the restoration by becoming a member or donating to the gardens.

My walk around the house and the immediate property was eye-opening. I had never explored this gem, having only been to an event in the modern meeting space, the Dogwood Building, a couple of years ago. I was struck by the beauty and creativity that went into each detail of the home. The stonework and ironwork are unmatched. A wedding or gathering there would only be enhanced by the details and accents all around. Even in the bathrooms, you see the work of Joe Howell. Tennessee marble lines the walls and floors in each bathroom, and the exterior doors create a mystery of their own with peepholes and other interesting details.

KBGA has done an excellent job at keeping each of the 18 garden areas in pristine condition. Sharon showed me one of visitors’ favorites: the Secret Garden, created in 2016 to honor local woman Andie Ray, who helped spearhead downtown Knoxville’s revitalization. The book The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett was one of her favorites. Burnett spent several years living in the Knoxville area and Ray’s beloved business, Vagabondia, was named after Burnett’s adolescent home here.

Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum, Secret Garden honoring Andie Ray, April 2024

Jenny Jukes also left funding for a garden to honor the Howell family. As part of this project, you can purchase a legacy stone and have it inscribed to be placed in the garden. Work is going on now for that project.

I’m told there used to be a mountainside that the Howells covered with azaleas in bloom, and people would come from all over to take photos there. Do you remember this? Does your family have photos of the Howell azaleas?

There are so many reasons to visit the Knoxville Botanical Gardens and Arboretums, but in case you need more, check out this list of upcoming events, many of which are free. They welcome volunteers and fellow gardeners to come out and share their expertise in this peaceful and meaningful part of our community. They are also open for events, meetings, weddings, etc.