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If you enjoy spring dogwood viewing, you may have the historic Howell Nurseries to thank for some of the most impressive bright red or pink blooms you see in the Southeast. When I recently toured the Knoxville Botanical Garden with Senior Gardener Mathew McMillian, he pointed out some of the most famous plant varieties from this bygone nursery business, including the dogwood.
McMillian says a naturally occurring mutation of the dogwood found in east Knoxville, called Prosser’s Red, was given to one of the Howell brothers. It was used to create a red or bright pink hybrid called Cherokee Chief. This was part of the nursery efforts to create dogwoods more resistant to disease such as anthracnose. McMillian says a long-term goal would be to someday be able to offer a botanical garden line of plants like these. For now, he pointed out a budding pink dogwood that stands in front of the current property office. Local dogwood blooming season is still a few weeks away in April.
Howell Nurseries was famous for propagating a famed Alexandrian or poet’s laurel, called danae (pronounced locally as DAY-nee-uh). McMillian explained that many nurseries won’t take the five to seven years needed to grow this gorgeous plant to useful maturity for consumers. Local gardeners have taken an interest in helping support the Botanical Garden’s danae collection.
A third plant that the Howell family is known for developing is the Burford holly. McMillian says the full-sized Burford has somewhat grown out of fashion. He notes that other holly plants can grow more compactly than the Burford, which gets large enough for hedges and fits in larger-scale yards. The visitor center beds now feature a dwarf version of the Burford holly.