For centuries, communities spanning the globe have found various ways to honor nature and the environment. However, the appreciation of trees and forests in modern times can be largely attributed to Arbor Day–which literally translates to “tree” day from the Latin origin of the word arbor–a holiday that celebrates the planting, upkeep and preservation of trees. And although Arbor Day may not have the same clout as holidays like Valentine’s Day or St. Patrick’s Day (or even Earth Day), it has a history with strong roots that branched out across multiple nations.
The origins of Arbor Day dates back to the early 1870s in Nebraska City, Nebraska. A journalist by the name of Julius Sterling Morton moved to the state with his wife, Caroline, in 1854 (a little more than 10 years before Nebraska gained its statehood in 1867). As newcomers to the young state, the couple purchased 160 acres in Nebraska City and planted a wide variety of trees and shrubs in what was a primarily a flat stretch of desolate plain.
Morton also became the editor of the state’s first newspaper, Nebraska City News, which became a perfect platform for Morton to spread his knowledge of trees, and to stress their ecological importance within Nebraska. His message of tree life resonated with Nebraskans, many of whom recognized the lack of forestation in their community. Morton also became involved with the Nebraska Board of Agriculture.
On January 7, 1872, Morton proposed a day that would encourage all Nebraskans to plant trees in their community. The agriculture board agreed, and after some back-and-forth about the title–the event was originally going to be called “Sylvan Day” in reference to forest trees but Morton noted that the day should reflect the appreciation of all trees—Arbor Day was born.
With the seeds of interest already planted in the minds of devoted Nebraska City News readers, the first ever Arbor Day, held on April 10, 1872, was a wild success. Morton led the charge in the planting of approximately 1 million trees. Enthusiasm and engagement was certainly helped by the prizes awarded to those who planted trees correctly.
The tradition quickly began to spread. In 1882, schools across the country started to participate, and more than a decade its introduction Arbor Day became an official state holiday in Nebraska in 1885. April 22 was initially chosen, because of its ideal weather for planting trees and in recognition of Morton’s birthday.
Within 20 years, Arbor Day had reached a large swath of the nation, and was celebrated in every state except for Delaware. The holiday spread even further with the help of fellow agriculturalist Birdsey Northrop. In 1883, Northrop introduced the concept of Arbor Day to Japan, and continued to influence the creation of Arbor Days across Europe, Canada and Australia.
It wasn’t until 1970, however, that Arbor Day became recognized nationwide, thanks to Richard Nixon. This move was in line with other environmentally-friendly actions taken by Nixon in the 1970s, including the passing of the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Protection Act, along with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Although some states celebrate Arbor Day at different times of year to ensure that the trees are in the best environment to thrive, the national observance falls on the last Friday in April. And although Julius Morton died in 1902, well before the holiday was given a formal day of observance across the country, he is still commemorated in Washington, D.C. with a statue dedicated to the “Father of Arbor Day” in the National Hall of Fame.