secrethistory (2007-40)

Knoxville In the Palms

Secret History

OK, OK. So they do grow here

by Jack Neely

You may recall a May 3 New York Times article that mentioned, among the observable effects of global warming, the existence of â“palm trees in Knoxville.â” In a short item we quoted a local professional tree expert saying, no way, there are no palm trees in Knoxville except those that grow in pots and are brought in during the winter.

Then a couple of readers reminded me of the one growing in the real dirt near Cherokee Boulevard in Sequoyah Hills. I mentioned that aberration in a column in August. I figured it was the only one, the exception that got the attention of the Times reporter, until I heard from Christine Abernathy, who lives on Davenport Road in South Knoxville, maybe a mile south of the river. Her yard hosts about a dozen palm trees of various sorts, the legacy of a previous owner. â“We have eight or nine established ones,â” she says, but adds, â“and then four smaller ones that linger, but do not do very well.â” They also have a thriving fig tree.

She sent some pictures to prove it to a skeptical reporter. The place looks like Mary Ann and Gingerâ’s backyard.

Youâ’d think theyâ’d need fastidious care. Knoxville sometimes endures weeks of below-freezing weather, andâ"though anyone who moved here in the last decade may be dubiousâ"even an occasional real snow.

â“We do absolutely nothing to the palms,â” Abernathy claims. Theyâ’ve lived in the house for six years.

I was all set to mention that exception in another column detailing my habitual underestimations of things. Then I heard from Michael Cartwright. Heâ’s the guy who had the reported palmetto in Sequoyah Hills. It turns out itâ’s not a palmetto, but maybe something more impressive, an 18-foot Mexican Fan Palm.

Itâ’s only the most conspicuous of Cartwrightâ’s 20 palms, representing 15 different species. He has cabbage palms, Bermuda palmettos, dwarf palmettos, pinwheel palms. Most arenâ’t much bigger than shrub size. Only one, now six or seven feet tall, is a palmetto proper. He also has some banana trees that do pretty well, though he admits Knoxvilleâ’s climate is not ideal for harvesting on a Chiquita scale. â“They have a sort of perfunctory fruit the squirrels love,â” he says.

Cartwright is in charge of an old family business, Morris Wood Tool Co., of Morristown; he also moonlights as an editor, lately collaborating with celebrated psychic Bobby Drinnon on a book. Heâ’s been preoccupied with palm trees since he was 3, he says, when a family trip to a botanical garden in Chicago enthralled him. As a kid in West Hills, he fantasized that the silver maples in the yard were palms. He admits to being a little palm-nutty. He may invite you to try some of his Jelly Palm jelly.

When he first saw that Mexican Fan Palm, it was outgrowing a big pot in front of the Chop House at Downtown West. About six years ago, he talked the owner out of it. He brought it home and planted it in the real earth, but around Christmastime he â“winterizesâ” it with heat-cable pipes, large moving blankets, and an SUV cover. â“When the weatherâ’s down in the teens, I plug it in,â” he says. â“There are some winters when I really didnâ’t need to plug it in at all.â” It grows about a foot a year.

His other palms donâ’t need much attention. â“The dwarf palmetto is actually native to a place maybe 70 miles southwest of Chattanooga,â” he says.

Heâ’s sure there are hundreds of palm trees in Knoxville today. â“Maybe thousands,â” he says, many of them out of common sight, planted on the south side of a palm-fancierâ’s house. He knows of three local nurseries that sell palms. When I was trying to determine whether palms exist in Knoxville, somehow it didnâ’t occur to me to look up â“Palmetto Farms Nurseryâ” on Bluegrass Road.

Theyâ’re spreading, growing accidentally. â“Theyâ’re naturalizing in Sequoyah Hills,â” Cartwright says. A cross-fence neighbor found, in his garden, palm trees that bore a suspicious family resemblance to Cartwrightâ’s. He didnâ’t mind it much. â“He decided to let them be. Theyâ’re now about two feet tall.â”

â“I know, theyâ’re invasive species,â” Cartwright admits. â“I donâ’t think palms are going to be taking over East Tennessee. But this could soon become part of their extended range.â” He says palm trees have been growing in Knoxville since at least the early â’70s, and that someone had been trying to get them going in Oak Ridge back in the â’50s.

He has seen some about a mile north, just off Kingston Pike, and more on Tanager Lane, off Lyons Bend, and farther west, near Palmetto Farms, most of them in the yards of palm fanciers he has known. He notes that Joel Lubar, a now-semi-retired psychology professor, was one of the early champions of Knoxville palms; Bert Williamson, of Palmetto Farms, is another longtime palm proponent. He says thereâ’s another Mexican Fan Palm in Holston Hills. Hearing about these stories, you canâ’t help but notice that almost all of them are in the southernmost quarters of the city, south of I-40. Does the northern border of the Palm Belt now pass right through Knoxville?

Cartwright donated a needle palm to Krutch Park; the city horticulturist at the time, a former Key West resident, accepted it enthusiastically. However, the recent park redesign deleted it favoring native species. Cartwright can only hope it found a good home. However, as part of another project, a UT student planted two shrub-like dwarf palmettos on the Locust Street side of UTâ’s downtown Conference Center.

Cartwright expects palms to become more common in Tennessee. This weekend heâ’s off to the Southeastern Palm Society meeting in Anniston, Ala. â“Tennessee has probably the fastest-growing membership in the society,â” he says. â“Iâ’m hoping we can host a meeting in Knoxville.â”

Maybe itâ’s bad news for global sustainability, but palms may add some legitimacy to a previously puzzling theme in Knoxville history. The ca. 1900 Knoxville Brewing Companyâ’s most popular product was a lager called Palmetto. And in the 1790s, thereâ’s evidence that Gov. William Blount attempted to develop a major American metropolis here, to be called Palmyra.


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