National Arbor Day—the day set aside for tree planting—is celebrated on the last Friday in April. That’s the designated day, this year falling on April 25, 2014. But states and countries observe Arbor Day according to their optimal tree-planting season. For example, in Alaska it will be the third Monday in May and Louisiana already celebrated on the third Friday in January. Around the world, Guam has Arbor Day on the second Tuesday of October and South Africa commemorates trees the entire first week of September.
First Arbor Day
Newspaperman, politician and Secretary of Agriculture J. Sterling Morton started Arbor Day in Nebraska in 1872. A nature lover and advocate of trees, he proposed to the Nebraska Board of Agriculture that a day be “set aside and consecrated for tree planting.” One million trees were planted on that first Arbor Day on April 10, and two years later the Nebraska legislature made it a legal holiday in the state, changing the official date to Morton’s birthday, April 22. In 1989, the date was moved to the last Friday in April and is still observed as an official holiday in Nebraska with state offices closed, the only state that does so. In 1970, former President Richard Nixon declared the last Friday in April as National Arbor Day, and the National Arbor Day Foundation was established in 1972. Arbor Day is not a federal holiday like, say, Martin Luther King Day, but it is observed worldwide like Earth Day.
“Other holidays repose upon the past,” said Morton. “Arbor Day proposes for the future.”
In the 30 years after the first Arbor Day, Morton estimated that 25 billion trees were planted around the United States.
When Morton first arrived in Nebraska Territory from Michigan in 1854 with his wife Caroline, the prairie was devoid of trees as far as the eye could see. He knew trees were important for providing lumber, fruit, windbreaks, shade, bird habitat and moisture retention in the soil. Today, visitors can see the hundreds of varieties of trees and shrubs the Mortons planted on their 65-acre estate in Nebraska City and tour their elegant 52-room neoclassical mansion that was their home. The gorgeous property—including a carriage house with antique carriages and wagons—was donated to the state of Nebraska by their oldest son Joy (founder of Morton Salt) and is now called Arbor Lodge State Historical Park.
Nearby is Arbor Day Farm, the original farm of the Mortons. Its woodlands, orchards and vineyards are a giant backyard—complete with a 50-foot treehouse and hiking trails—for the impressive Lied Lodge & Conference Center that sits in the center of the 260 acres. One cannot help feeling connected to the earth here. A myriad of adventures and events are offered, all designed to educate about trees in a family-fun way. Everyone who visits gets to take home a seedling to plant.
For everything you ever wanted to know about trees or to give a gift of a tree to yourself or a friend to celebrate Arbor Day, visit the Arbor Day Foundation.