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What is Arbor Day?

“The cultivation of trees is the cultivation of the good, the beautiful, and the ennobling in man, and for one, I wish to see it become universal.”

-Julius Sterling Morton

While most everyone may be fairly familiar with the holiday, not everyone is as familiar with the man responsible for the creation of this day. Julius Sterling Morton, (April 22, 1832 - April 27, 1902) was a politician, conservationist, newspaper editor, and lover of trees. After spending his early life studying in Michigan, Morton and his wife moved to Nebraska where he started the Nebraska City News. Morton was appointed secretary of the Nebraska territory in 1858, and served as acting governor from September of 1858 until May of 1859.  After suffering a political loss, Morton turned to speaking and writing, never wavering in his conservative views. It was during this time that Morton began to experiment in his own backyard, planting different varieties of trees, in an attempt to find out what varieties would best acclimate to the state of Nebraska. What is Arbor Day?  The Arbor Day Foundation motto, “We inspire people, to plant, nurture, and celebrate trees”, may express the sentiment of this holiday best.  Arbor Day is not a national holiday but is recognized throughout the world as a day of planting and caring for trees. In Kentucky Arbor Day is officially celebrated on the 1st Friday in April, just as many tree buds are beginning to produce the first leaves of spring and the redbuds are showing their brilliant purple blossoms.

The prairies of Nebraska were a stark contrast to the forests of Michigan where Morton spent his early life.   Morton felt the state of Nebraska would benefit from planting trees, and recognized their value aesthetically and as a natural resource. Trees provide food in the form of nuts and fruit, timber for use in building homes and furniture, and serve as natural erosion control by creating a natural sun and wind barrier. According to the biographer, Bryon Anderson, Morton “recognized an aesthetic value to trees and linked this to his belief that individuals who took pride in their own home would be more patriotic.”  

Morton proposed the first Arbor Day in 1872; it was to be a day set aside for educating the public on the importance of tree planting. The first Arbor Day was wildly successful with over one million trees planted.

In 1874, Arbor Day became an annual event in Nebraska and in 1885 legislation was passed in the state making it a legal holiday celebrated on Julius Sterling Morton’s birthday, April 22nd. Arbor Day is now celebrated throughout the world, at different times of year due to regional variations in climate. The holiday has inspired conservationist thinking throughout the world, encouraging citizen action and participation as people plant trees in their own yards and communities.  

The first Earth Day occurred on April 22,1970, nearly 100 years after the first Arbor Day celebration in Nebraska, and continues to honor the conservationist views of the Arbor Day founder, J. Sterling Morton. Morton once said, “Arbor Day is not like other holidays. Each of those reposes on the past, while Arbor Day proposes for the future.”  

Here at The Parklands of Floyds Fork we are continuously inspired by the foresight of our country’s early conservationists. Taking inspiration from Fredrick Law Olmsted,and his motto of “bringing nature into neighborhoods”, we are preserving over 2,000 acres of forestland. To date, The Parklands has planted over 50,000 trees and will continue to plant more as park development continues.    

What can you do? This year to celebrate Arbor Day plant a tree in your neighborhood! If you'd like to learn more about trees and the history of Arbor Day, join us for an Arbor Day Hike on April 26th, from 9-11 AM.   

About the Author

Picture of Hannah Graham

Hannah Graham

Hannah joined the 21st Century Parks in 2013 as an Interpretive Ranger, responsible for creating and delivering interpretive programs to the public. As a native Kentuckian, Hannah has a passion for educating herself and others about Kentucky’s complex ecosystem. Hannah is a graduate of the University of Louisville where she studied Biology and English. Hannah in currently enrolled in continuing studies at U of L and has just completed an Ichthyology course. In her free time she enjoys long walks in the woods with her husband and her dog.

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