Words and images by Blake Allen
There is a place in Jacksonville dedicated to conservation, recreation, nature and the study of plants.
This 120-acre arboretum is enhanced and maintained entirely by community volunteers. The land is so large and diverse that some feel like they aren’t in Jacksonville anymore.
“It puts you in a mystical place. It’s like the Shire from ‘Lord of the Rings,’” said Danny Fernandez, a frequent visitor of the Arboretum. On this day, he and wife, Lily, were exploring and having a picnic after church.
The Jacksonville Arboretum and Gardens includes more than three miles of trails, a lake, various species of plants, wildlife and distinct ecological habitats. And the experience is totally free, but donations are encouraged.
Each of the seven trails has its own points of interest, and new secrets to discover. With more than three miles of trails, there is enough to explore over multiple trips to the Arboretum.
Rosemary ridge is a one-mile winding trail lined with twisted wood in some parts and lush green walls in others, passing through multiple habitats — each one being distinguishable from the last.
Aralia trail leads through a small, very delicate, forested wetland ecosystem populated by large Aralia spinosa trees, with their club-shaped branches and spiked trunks, and small swamps.
Signs labeling the foliage and giving general descriptions of the area can be found all over the area. These signs point out plants such as Christmas lichen, saw palmetto, live oak trees and even give warnings about the alligator in Lake Ray.
On a typical day at the arboretum, people can be found walking dogs, exercising, taking pictures, admiring the sculptures and playing with their children.
Chad Allen visits the Arboretum while on a break from work.
“It was little more than a few trails and a lake,” said Allen of his first visit to the arboretum in 2009. Allen was at the arboretum Sunday to enjoy the beauty, nature and sunshine.
He wasn’t exaggerating with his account of the early days of the Arboretum either. When it opened to the public in 2008, the lake loop, Jones Creek, ravine trails and the paved parking area were the only attractions.
But even that was a complete reversal of how the land originally looked.
Beginning around 1944 and ending in 1961, the land was mined by the Humphries Gold Mining Company for minerals to make titanium. Deep ridges along the area were prime mining locations.
In the early 1970s the land was purchased by the City of Jacksonville as a condition of the EPA grant to build the Arlington East treatment facility. For decades, the land went unused and was often the site of illegal dumping. That all changed in 2004 when a group of citizens negotiated a deal with the city to lease the property for recreational use as an arboretum.
Thanks to volunteer work, the Arboretum has been turned around.
On select days of the year community volunteers come to improve the trails by clearing debris and installing new equipment in the area. There are also several events throughout the year including themed nature hikes, Nature at Night and art events. One such art event, The Art of Nature, allows artists to come create and donate pieces to the Arboretum. Additional information about the Arboretum can be found on its website.
But the work is not yet finished.
Arboretum President Willis Jones has five years of plans ahead. Besides developing the 30-40 untouched acres, Jones’ plans include: paving the lake loop, building a visitor center, having maintenance facilities, becoming more ADA compliant and having a permanent entrance off of either Merrill or Monument road.
“It’s a well-kept secret in Jacksonville,” said Jones. “It makes others feel at home,” he said while referring to people he talked to from out of state.
“The Central Park of Arlington,” is how Jones referred to the land.