Arbor Day 2024: Why Do We Celebrate Arbor Day?

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Learn the History Behind Arbor Day—and Plant a Tree!

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

–J. Sterling Morton.

Arbor Day sprouted from the mind of a zealous tree lover named Julius Sterling Morton. A popular Arbor Day tradition is to plant a tree in honor or memory of a loved one. Learn some interesting facts about this day, and learn about the power of trees, which support our well-being!

When Is Arbor Day?

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. Find out when your state observes Arbor Day.

Arbor Day Dates
YearArbor Day
2024Friday, April 26
2025Friday, April 25
2026Friday, April 24
2027Friday, April 30

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 traditionally take the opportunity to organize tree-planting and litter-collecting events on or around the holiday.

What does he plant who plants a tree?
   He plants cool shade and tender rain,
And seed and bud of days to be,
   And years that fade and flush again;
      He plants the glory of the plain;
      He plants the forest’s heritage;
      The harvest of a coming age;
The joy that unborn eyes shall see—
These things he plants who plants a tree.

–Excerpt from The Heart of the Tree by Henry Cuyler Bunner (1855-1896)

A popular Arbor Day tradition is to plant a tree in honor or memory of a loved one. 

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.

The History of Arbor Day

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. It’s estimated that nearly one million trees were planted on this day.

By 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.

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.

Julius Sterling Morton
Julius Sterling Morton

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. 

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.

Highlights from Morton’s Career

  • 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.
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.

Fun Fact: 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.

Tree planting. Photo by Zinkevych/Getty Images
Photo by Zinkevych/Getty Images

The Power of Trees

  1. Trees support our health and the health of our planet! They clean our air and water. They provide shade, which cools our urban areas. Even on a personal level, trees have been proven to calm us and reduce our stress levels. 
  2. Trees also support wildlife and our entire ecosystem. One oak trees attracts thousands of pollinators and beneficial insects! Trees provide birds and aquatic animals with habitats. In addition, they provide humans with powerful medicine, materials for living, and agriculture.
  3. Finally, trees are are biggest allies as the world climate warms; they are a cost-effective way to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere today. Planting even one tree makes a difference.

Early spring is a good time to plant trees. Enjoy our post on How to Plant a Tree! Also, watch our short video on How to Plant a Fruit Tree.

Let’s also take good care of the trees that we do have! Here are pruning pointers for shrubs and trees.

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

About The Author

Alice Cary

Alice Cary has been an Educational writer for over 20 years. Read More from Alice Cary

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