Arbor Day 2018: History, Facts, and Date

Plant a Tree this Arbor Day!

By Alice Cary
Arbor Day
Jacob_09/Shutterstock

Arbor Day 2018 falls on Friday, April 27. 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.

What is Arbor Day?

Arbor Day, much like Earth Day, is a holiday that celebrates nature. Its purpose is to encourage people to plant trees, and many communities take the opportunity to organize tree-planting and litter-collecting events on or around the holiday. A popular Arbor Day tradition is to plant a tree in honor or memory of a loved one. 

Arbor Day sprouted from the mind of a zealous tree lover named Julius Sterling Morton, who had a passion for planting all kinds of trees. The first Arbor Day occurred on April 10, 1872, in Nebraska City, Nebraska.

Arbor Day tree planting in NYC, 1908. Photo from Library of Congress.
A New York City school celebrates Arbor Day 1908 by planting trees. Looks like fun! Photo by George Grantham Bain, courtesy of The Library of Congress.

When is Arbor Day?

Today, Arbor Day is celebrated on the last Friday in April, although some states observe it on dates that better coincide with the local area’s planting times. For instance, Hawaii celebrates Arbor Day on the first Friday of November, and Alaskans celebrate it on the third Monday in May. 

Oak tree

Who was 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 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.”    
  • 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. 

Sec. of Agriculture Edwin T. Meredith and the District Federation of Women's Clubs plant a tree in honor of J. Sterling Morton, founder of Arbor Day. Photo from Library of Congress.
Secretary of Agriculture Edwin T. Meredith and the District Federation of Women’s Clubs plant a tree in honor of J. Sterling Morton in May 1920. Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress.

The History of Arbor Day

  • The first Arbor Day occurred on April 10, 1872, in Nebraska City, Nebraska. It’s estimated that nearly one million trees were planted on this day.
  • By April 22, 1885, Arbor Day had become a legal holiday in Nebraska. (The date was changed to April 22 to honor Morton’s birthday, which was also the 22nd of April.)
  • 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, Arbor Lodge grew from a four-room home into a 52-room mansion, complete with a terraced garden, a pine grove, and 65 acres of 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 have in your yard? Share with us below!

Source: 

Parts of this article originally appeared in The 2003 Old Farmer's Almanac.

Reader Comments

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Trees in our yard

Just reread article of Julius Sterling Morton. Enjoyed it soooo much.
We have 2 very large redwoods in our backyard. We planted 26 yrs ago.
And have Modesto Ash in front yard. And a Japanese maple in front yard.
Really enjoy them.
And thank you for the wonderful article. I am new to Farmer's Almanac.
Dolores in Castro Valley, Calif.

Thank You

Thank you, Dolores, for your nice comment! We’re glad to hear that you enjoyed our Arbor Day article—and boy, what a great collection of trees you’ve got!

Yard full of Trees

Moved here in NE WA 1972, growing already were a Black Walnut, Black Locust, Red Maple, Blue Spruce, Red Hawthorne, Heirloom Apple, Princess Plum, Lav Lilac, Mock Orange IN the yard, yes huge yard! Since then only added a few black locust as grow fast and shade well, couple sno berry have popped up and one Sarvis berry, also did plant 2 Pussy Willow's, 1 Elderberry, white Lilac in garden area and other orchard fruit trees, pear, 2 apples, varigated plum.....but do plant trees of all types along outside of pasture like maple bushes, blue spruce, Mt Laurel, Elm, black Locust, Wild Roses, Red Maple, Ponderosa Pine, love planting trees and grow most I plant from nut or seedlings. I always plant a tree on birthdays for a gift thru Arbor Foundation and also give them for wedding gifts. Am trying to grow Cedar and Tx Live Oak and Ark Acorn now, not native here except for Cedar but grow up much higher than here so want to see how that goes, hope it works! I use 'root growth' no chemicals and 'Super Thrive' to help them, never ever use miracle grow, no way!

Love this holiday

I have several varieties of oak, madrone, cedar as well as one monkey puzzle and this year (just this morning) I planted a giant sequoia redwood and a fraiser fir. I plan to plant two more trees today, one blue spruce and one ponderosa pine. Happy Arbor day everyone!

trees

Sadly the biggest shade tree in my yard fell during a wind storm. I had only moved in 2 months ago and looking forward to seeing the leaves and enjoy the shade it would provide. The tree was well over 30 years old. Another tree in my yard lost a very large limb. It was a horrible wind storm. I hope to plant a new tree but have not decided what kind yet.

White Plne Tree

I remember when I was a little girl I got a White pine tree for Arbor Day and I planted it in my moms back yard and it still sits their bigger as ever.

Arbor Day

This year for both Earth Day and Arbor Day, I ordered 10 hybrid poplars from the Arbor Day Foundation. They included a free red maple and two forsythias! I got those planted on the west side of my 1 acre lot to provide future shade for my home here on the nearly treeless southern plain of west Texas. Additionally, I put in a drip system to keep them all watered. I look forward to sitting in the shade of these fast growing trees in a few years!

Arbor Day

I remember when I was in Elementary School, we celebrated Arbor Day every year. I don't remember if we planted a tree on the school grounds or if we just went to a tree and talked about how important trees are to the world. I can see, in my mind's eye, my class standing at the front of the school, forming an arc around a tree. That's all I remember (this was in North Hollywood, California around 1957 or 58.

Trees in my yard

In addition to bushes and flowers, I have planted a purple plum (snitched from the forest), two dogwoods (one died), a black walnut (my neighbor has one so they cross-pollinate), a maple, an oak (which grows sooooooo slowly), a choke cherry and a fir tree. Have another purple plum in the forest just waiting for my shovel! I am helping the other trees around it to grow--thinning growth w/my new purple plum now able to grow strong in my yard!

Arbor Day years ago

When my now 37 year old daughter was just a little thing, she came home from school on Arbor Day with a very tiny tree but and said to my husband, "Daddy, can we plant this tree in the yard?" The reply was, "Oh honey, we can plant it but I'm not sure it will grow." Boy did it grow in over 30 years. The trouble is, it is not the best tree for the yard. The limbs are brittle and the needles turn brown and drop off. So, I love the idea but those giving out trees and the fact she planted it but I wish we had known and not planted that one...at least not in our back yard. :)

Arbor Day

How come I can't share this article ,.

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.