Jim Cortese says he didn't care about getting credit for his idea. As a certified master arborist and passionate tree preservationist, he was just worried that the dogwood, namesake of the festival, high point of 60-plus miles of trails, had been "assaulted pretty intensely" in the past few years—nationally and locally.
"I thought the Dogwood Arts Festival would be the greatest place in the world to try to stimulate interest in restoring dogwood populations," he says.
Cortese knew Lisa Duncan from seeing her at the Home and Garden shows both participated in, and a couple of years ago, he says, "I took her aside and told her, ‘We need to figure this out.'"
Locally, dogwood populations were down due to natural attrition, but also due to other landscape trees being more popular in recent years.
(Athracnose, which kills dogwoods, was not as big of a concern as you might think, says University of Tennessee plant pathologist Mark Windham, one of the UT scientists who developed Appalachian Spring, an athracnose-resistant strain of dogwoods, about 10 years ago. "It's most severe in wooded, not residential, areas, and trees in full sun can be treated," he says.)
Some months later, Duncan reintroduced the topic, and Cortese was on the original planning committee that eventually became Bazillion Blooms, though he's left the execution more to the others, he says.
The group, with partners including the UT department of agriculture and the city and county, set the catchy number of "a bazillion" dogwoods to plant in Knoxville; through efforts last year, they're up to 4,000 and counting. This works wonders for the dogwood population, and also helps Tennessee growers, both because of the seedling sales and the publicity. Many of the trees planted were Appalachian Spring, or another UT cultivar that's resistant to powdery mildew. The sales yield a small payback for UT, but the resultant publicity helps even more, because the athracnose-resistant strain is more needed in cold climates that it is here, says Windham, so tourist word of mouth is a very good thing.
"Tennessee is the largest producer of dogwoods in the country," he says. "If you were to drive anywhere in the country and see a dogwood in a yard, chances are 70 to 75 percent it came from here." Most are sold as very small trees, then grown to a saleable size in nurseries across the U.S.
Cortese, who has eight Appalachian Spring seedlings in his own yard, hopes that the planting continues, with a particular emphasis on larger trees local nurseries can sell.
Even more than that, he hopes locals will remember the "reason for the season." "Our dogwoods are so magnificent," he says. "We should be especially proud of our granddaddy dogwoods. Most you think of as being 2-5 inches in diameter. These are 60-80 inches in circumference. The largest red blooming dogwood is in Calvary Cemetery on Martin Luther King Boulevard, and the largest white blooming in Island Home subdivision. They're monstrous—if you see either one of these two trees, it's the equivalent of looking at redwoods that are more than 30 feet across. And they date back to the 1880s or 1890s."
The reason there aren't more antique dogwoods, says Cortese, is that their wood was once prized for bobbins, so much of it was harvested locally for sewing mills during the Industrial Revolution.
And how does he know all this? "My ambition in life is to study and understand trees, and that's where it's led me," he says. "The only wreck I ever had, I was looking at trees."
He doesn't expect such dedication from everyone. "But my parting words are, ‘Go out and enjoy spring time and enjoy life. Praise the lord as you see him and go out and enjoy his handiwork.'"