The Undertree: When Did Knoxville Start Rooting for the Dogwood?

I've been asking around, and there are still some older folks who can remember when Knoxville was not famous for its dogwoods. They were handy, of course, but for the city's first 150 years, dogwoods probably never grew so abundantly in the city as they do today. I'm not sure they were much cherished. I don't see many references to them in old Knoxville newspapers.

The fact that there are so many dogwoods flowering all over Knoxville, from Cherokee Boulevard to Fountain City to Holston Hills, may demonstrate the power of an effective public-relations campaign.

We never had dogwood trails before about 1955. In 1957, the city claimed to have the first night-lit dogwood trails in human history. By 1958, there was a "dogwood fever," as thousands of citizens who perhaps had never thought much about dogwoods before began planting them in their yards. Beginning in 1961, there was a whole Dogwood Arts Festival that got us the most positive press coverage we'd had since the National Conservation Exposition of 1913. By 1967, we were proclaiming ourselves "Dogwood City" and even "Dogwood Capital of the World." The mayor and City Council declared the dogwood to be Knoxville's official tree. In 1970, Ingrid Bergman planted a dogwood on Market Square.

Of course, it's not there anymore. Then again, in 2001, the mayor and City Council again declared the dogwood to be Knoxville's official tree, perhaps unaware that was old business, taken care of back in 1967.

Dogwoods have been such a big Knoxville deal my whole life I was pretty surprised at the scarcity of old material on the subject. I looked in the Dogwood file at the McClung Collection and didn't find a single clipping on the subject of dogwood trees that dated before the TV age.

Knoxville named its streets for lots of other kinds of trees. Cedar, Willow, Elm, Locust, Walnut, Spruce, Poplar, Maple, and Oak were all honored with street names in 19th century Knoxville. But for Knoxville's first 150 years of building and naming streets, the street-naming committees avoided the subject of dogwoods.

James Agee's famous autobiographical vignette, "Knoxville: Summer 1915," emphasizes the trees in his Fort Sanders neighborhood, but he mentions no dogwoods. "These were softwooded trees," he writes of the Highland Avenue of his youth, "poplars, tulip trees, cottonwoods."

All those decades before the dogwood trails, the tree wasn't unknown here, of course. It's a native tree. White-blossomed dogwoods grew here, with enough interesting variants in the Knoxville area that some arborists believe East Tennessee does have a significant place in the realm of this tree that grows throughout much of America.

But the dogwood didn't conform with 18th and 19th-century impressions of nature's majesty, strength, and durability. Dogwoods are short and gnarled, with fragile bark. The average dogwood doesn't live as long as the average human. Their flowers don't have a scent, at least not one people are ever likely to be sentimental about. Dogwoods were once allegedly known, for obscure reasons, as "nature's mistake."

They're trees that grow beneath the mighty oak, the stout hickory, and the noble elm. They're pretty, for a few days a year, and after that you don't notice them much until next year.

I asked Knoxville's private-sector tree expert, Jim Cortese, about the origin of the dogwood's sanctification. Judging by the oldest examples he knows of that appear to be deliberately planted, he speculates that dogwoods didn't catch on as a tree that people actually liked to have in their front yards until well into the 20th century. A century ago, dogwoods weren't valued as an ornamental tree. They were an industrial commodity, Cortese says, harvested for their hard wood, which made excellent bobbins for Knoxville's several textile mills. Brookside, Standard, some of those places went through tens of thousands of bobbins in a given year.

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I'm wondering when we started venerating the tree. It seems to have started sometime after World War I. The horrors of World War I changed the way Americans looked at lots of things, as mechanized warfare, machine guns, and tanks and mustard gas seemed to diminish the importance and durability of people. Maybe that's when we realized humans can never be much like oaks or hickory trees. We started to feel a more realistic kinship with the dogwood. We started rooting for the undertree.

Maybe it was something else. But something was changing, perhaps subtly, in the 1920s. We know there was interest in dogwoods then because they started showing up in architecture.

I'm not certain, but I think there may be some dogwood blossoms high on the marble facade of First Baptist Church on Main Street, built in 1924. It's stylized, though, and may be some other four-leafed flower.

But there's a more obvious, and sort of startling, homage to dogwoods just around the corner.

When the Tennessee Theatre opened in 1928, it impressed visitors with a movie-palace interpretation of the luxuriant stylings of Moorish Spain. Its heraldic symbols and images of jars and lamps and arched alcoves speak of the Mediterranean.

But there was one New World touch, on double-coiled plaster cables that line the proscenium, and it's a symbol not seen in most of the theaters by Graven & Mayger, the Chicago firm that designed the Tennessee. Molded images of big dogwood blossoms, about 120 of them, climb all around the stage area.

The year the Tennessee opened was the same year Bruce Howell, of venerable Howell Nurseries, the plant purveyors in East Knoxville whose campus is now the site of the Knoxville Botanical Gardens, commenced a project to create a perfect red-blossomed dogwood. He and his family worked on it for decades, and it was not until the early 1960s that it was marketed.

Then, in 1930, the first local street named for the tree—tiny Dogwood Lane, in Sequoyah Hills—shows up. It was the first of several Dogwood streets in town. Now, at least 100 households in Fountain City and West Knoxville have Dogwood in their address.