What is Arbor Day? A Forest of Facts

Alice Cary
Black Walnut Trees

This year when you plant a tree for Arbor Day, know the facts behind the holiday that was founded in 1885. Dedicate a tree to someone who is special to you and check out these facts about Arbor Day and the man who founded it.

“Other holidays repose upon the past;
Arbor Day proposes for the future.”

–J. Sterling Morton.

When is Arbor Day? National Arbor Day is celebrated on the last Friday in April, although some states observe it on different dates to coincide with the local area's best planting times. For instance, Hawaii celebrates it on the first Friday of November, and Alaskans celebrate it on the third Monday in May.

Who was Julius Sterling Morton?

  • Arbor Day exists because of a zealous tree lover named Julius Sterling Morton.
  • Morton was born in Adams, New York, in 1832 , but his life took a decisive turn on his wedding day in October 1854. After he and his bride, Caroline Joy French were married in Detroit, they headed west for adventure in the wilds of Nebraska Territory. The couple settled on 160 treeless acres (the key word here is treeless).
  • Despite having a busy career and four sons, Morton planted thousands of trees on the homestead he called the Morton “ranche.” He planted an apple orchard, as well as peach, plum and pear trees, plus cottonwoods, evergreens, beeches and more.
  • Morton worked as a journalist and a politician, becoming secretary and acting governor of the Nebraska Territory from 1858 to 1861.
  • In 1893, President Grover Cleveland appointed him U.S. secretary of agriculture. He also served on the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture and the State Horticultural Society.
  • Morton took every opportunity he could to spread the word. He gave speeches and filled his newspaper with agricultural advice, urging Nebraskans to plant trees and try new crops. 
  • In 1872, Morton declared: “If I had the power, I would compel every man in the State who had a home of his own to plant out and cultivate fruit trees.”    

The History of Arbor Day

  • By April 22, 1885 Arbor Day had become a legal holiday in Nebraska.
  • On that day, thousands of Nebraska City citizens turned out for one big party, including 1,000 school-children who formed a parade.
  • Within 20 years of its creation, the holiday was celebrated in every American state except Delaware, which eventually joined in.
  • Particularly pleasing to Morton was the fact that schools across the country began celebrating Arbor Day by dedicating the trees they planted to special people.
  • Arbor Day was almost called Sylvan Day, which means “wooded.” Several members of the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture favored it, but Morton argued that sylvan refers only to forest trees and that the name Arbor Day was most inclusive, covering forest trees and fruit trees.
  • Today, the family home, Arbor Lodge, is a state park in Nebraska City, Nebraska.
  • Over the years it grew from four rooms into a 52-room mansion, complete with a terraced garden, a pine grove, and 65 acres with more than 250 varieties of trees and shrubs.
  • J. Sterling Morton died at the age of 70 on April 27, 1902, writing just a month earlier that he hoped to plant trees as soon as the weather turned warm. A statue of him stands in the National Hall of Fame in Washington D.C.

Do you celebrate Arbor Day? What types of trees do you like to plant in your yard? Share with us below!


The 2003 Old Farmer's Almanac

Reader Comments

Leave a Comment

nut growers meeting at the Arbor Lodge starting July 31, 2016

The Northern Nut Growers Association will hold this year's meeting at the Arbor Day Lodge, starting July 31, 2016. We honor the spirit of J. Sterling Morton by dedicating ourselves to planting and caring for food bearing trees that will feed future generations and preserve the environment. Information on the meeting can be found at www.nutgrowing.org.

Although not on Arbor Day, my

Although not on Arbor Day, my husband planted a magnolia a few years ago in our backyard in memory of my father. My husband is from Mississippi, so it's like a little of home here in Massachusetts for him, too.

I do celebrate Arbor Day by

I do celebrate Arbor Day by planting a rare tree in our west /Tennessee area. I live on a 16 acre spread, mostly wooded with new under-growth. I have been busy over the past year trying to thin out the gum trees allow the hardwood forest to thrive. I am a firm believer in reforestation and in our need for trees and lots of them to survive.

Free Beginners Garden Guide

Vegetable Gardening for Beginners!
Your complete guide on how to grow a vegetable garden—from scratch!


You will also be subscribed to our Almanac Companion Newsletter