Bill Lott maneuvers his way down a leaf-covered embankment in the Thompson Mills Forest and crouches next to a patch of small, pine-shaped plants covering the forest floor.
“Know what this is?” Lott asks, uprooting a small portion of the clustered needles. “Ground pine.”
Native to Georgia, the plant was once used by people to make wreaths before pine boughs became popular material.
Lott knows of countless other plants and trees used by humans that cover the forest’s gentle slopes, including the wild ginger plant and the northern white cedar tree. Chewing wild ginger, or heartleaf, helped remedy heart conditions, and the vitamin C-filled northern white cedar helped ward off scurvy, Lott says.
There are also the incense cedars, which pencils are made from, the common red mulberry, which will cause hallucinations if the tree’s unripe fruit is eaten, and the musky-smelling Mexican cyprus, which Lott said was used to line coffins in Mexico to mask unpleasant odors.
More than 200 species of trees and scores of plants and animals live in the 330-acre Thompson Mills Forest, located off Liberty Church Road in Jackson County.
And with spring arriving on March 20, Lott said the forest will be at its best for sightseeing.
Open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, the arboretum is owned and operated by the University of Georgia and managed by Lott.
The land was deeded to the university in 1980 by Braselton resident Lenox T. Thornton.
“It’s set aside real good,” said Lott. “It’s a deed of trust, so it can never be sold, never be developed.”
Thornton inherited the land from his grandfather, Jasper Thompson, who bought the property at the end of the Civil War. Until the Great Depression in the 1930s, the land was a bustling agricultural center called Thompson Mills Community. The center even had its own “post office, grist mills, school, local churches and thriving farms,” according to the arboretum’s brochure.
Since 1981, Lott has pruned and planted the arboretum’s many plant and tree specimens, maintained the trails and educated people about the forest’s unique ecosystem.
He and former UGA professor Claude Brown helped plant most of the trees now found in the arboretum.
“There wasn’t over a dozen trees set out when me and him started,” said Lott.
The forest now boasts 210 of the 214 native Georgia tree specimens, and an untold number of other exotic species from around the world, including Norway spruces, cedars of Lebanon, Douglas firs from the western U.S., bald cypresses, Russian firs and gingkos from Japan.
All together, Lott said more than 50 countries’ trees are represented on the property, but his favorite specimen grows locally in Hall and Jackson counties. The big leaf magnolia, which has three-foot leaves and 14-inch flowers, holds the record for having the biggest leaves and flowers of any North American tree.
Lott said “to have something that unique growing in our counties here and very few people probably know(ing) about it,” intrigues him.
Visitors can catch a glimpse of Lott’s favorite tree and other species that span the arboretum’s property while they walk the five or six miles of trails and gravel roads that wind through the forest.
The well-kept paths are maintained not only by Lott, but also by husband and wife volunteers Fred and Margo Schuttenberg.
The Schuttenbergs, who met Lott while walking their dog at the arboretum, said they started volunteering in 2001.
“It’s a very nice place,” said Fred Schuttenberg. “Bill is friendly and nice to work with, and we’ve enjoyed it.”
The couple, both in their 60s, helps keep the trails clear of any limbs, vines or other debris that may block the pathways.
Schuttenberg said his favorite trail to walk is the one-mile Lee Creek Trail, which follows the creek deep into the forest. “It’s the prettiest of all the trails, I think,” he said. “You see nothing but wilderness; you’re truly back in the woods.”
Visitors can also browse more than 100 species of native and ornamental trees in the Eva Thompson Thornton Garden at the arboretum’s entrance, and search for the forest’s many animal species — beavers, river otters, foxes, raccoons, wild turkeys, salamanders, frogs and others.
Lott said he has watched fox cubs play outside their den, river otters hunt for fish and a mother raccoon carry her kits by the scruff of their necks down a tree and into a den on the riverbank.
But even with the forest’s plethora of exotic species, Lott said the aspect that amazes most people is watching a longleaf pine tree’s life cycle from seedling to adult.
Native to Georgia, the longleaf pine is found mostly in the state’s coastal plain region. The tree starts life resembling a clump of long, wiry grass and eventually evolves into a towering, skinny tree with tufts of lime-green needles poking out from its branches.
This evolution, Lott said, causes many visitors to take notice. “I’ve seen people just stand there and look at that stuff,” he said.
People will look at him and exclaim, “You mean that grass is a tree?”
And whether he’s watching visitors marvel at this small, but amazing anomaly or planting trees, clearing trails or watching fox cubs frolic, Lott said the arboretum reveals a new task every day.
“Maybe one day I’m talking to people, the next day I’m cutting some trees out of the trail ... (but) you know it’s something unique or different all the time and you’re always learning too.”