How Baum’s Bearden blooms transformed the world of flowers

Tracy Haun OwensOur Town Stories, West Knoxville

It’s spring, and East Tennessee is a riot of colorful flowers. Wild irises are popping up in surprising blues and lavenders, purple hyacinths and yellow daffodils are lining walkways, and gloriously cultivated tulips are standing in every crayon shade imaginable. As a city, we’re as known for our love of blossoms as we are for our dogwood trees.

A closer 1940s view

At least some of that fervor for flora might be traced all the way back to the late 1880s, when Charles L. Baum founded Baum’s Home of Flowers. In the late 1920s, Baum expanded to 65 acres of greenhouse growing in Bearden, along what is now Baum Drive, transforming both Bearden and the world of ornamental horticulture.

Baum started with a small greenhouse off of Tazewell Pike and a flower cart. The downtown shop he started soon after became a mainstay of commercial Knoxville. While becoming a successful retailer, Baum also became an expert on bulb propagation. At the time, florists in the South were relying on bulbs from the North. Baum wrote papers and addressed growers on the subject, saying, in 1921, “I believe in a few years the South will be the bulb-growing section of this country.”

His experiments with gladioli and other flowers were “little short of marvelous,” said a noted nurseryman at the time. Soon nurseries all over the South were following his lead.

Baum brought his sons into the business: Karl Baum, who became president of the Tennessee State Florists Association, and Roy and Floyd Baum, who managed nurseries. His son-in-law, G.W. Chesney, was also part of Baum’s.

Carnation operations at the Bearden greenhouses in the 1940s

With Karl managing the store, Baum’s Home of Flowers expanded to take up four floors of the Newcomer Building on Gay Street in 1925. There were 16 phone lines and 50 employees. A few years after, the Baums bought 65 acres of land in Bearden, announcing plans for five huge greenhouses. They would produce carnations, chrysanthemums, gladioli, potted plants and roses. At one time, more than 133,000 rose plants bloomed on Baum Drive each year, producing millions of flowers. The Baums also had an interest in an orchard company outside of Sevierville, where they grew thousands of lilies suited to higher elevations.

The Bearden greenhouses became the anchor of Baum’s Home of Flowers, and the family became nationally known ambassadors of the grower/florist profession. At the Bearden greenhouses, Floyd Baum created several rose hybrids that still exist today. As part of the board of the original FTD (Florists’ Telegraph Delivery), Karl Baum introduced a contest to come up with the distinctive logo and was honored many times over by his peers as one of the original boosters of “saying it with flowers.”

Drivers at the ready at Baum’s Home of Flowers in Bearden, 1950

As development encroached around Bearden and the rest of West Knoxville, the family sold the Baum Drive land in 1972. They closed the greenhouses and on-site retail store, keeping open operations in Fountain City for a few more years. Today, in Bearden, where flowers once grew, a busy office park/industrial area blooms.

The Calvin M. McClung Digital Collection has dozens of images of several locations of Baum’s Home of Flowers and of the Baum family.

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