What is Arbor Day and When is it?

history of arbor dayNot the formal patriotic holiday that was originally conceived, Arbor Day continues to be celebrated across the United States during the month of April. In Washington, DC and Virginia, the official day is the last Friday in April. But the exact day varies by state, as it is often selected to coincide with the best tree planting time. In Maryland, Arbor Day will be celebrated on Wednesday of this week, but with temperatures still on the chilly side, you may want to wait another week or so.

Originally devised by Nebraska’s’ young Secretary of Agriculture to beautify his new home state, Arbor Day lives on in a variety of forms. Festivities are sometimes combined with Earth Day, also celebrated at the end of April. The sustainability initiatives of schools, governments and parks and gardens also recognize that April is a good month to take a moment to recognize the relationship between man and his natural environment.

History of Arbor Day

The very first Arbor Day was celebrated in Nebraska in 1872. J. Sterling Morton, longing for the lush green landscape of his native Michigan, encouraged Nebraskans to plant trees -- for shade, shelter, fruit, fuel and inherent beauty. By the late 1800’s, every state celebrated Arbor Day. Citizens eagerly embraced the holiday, recognizing that it is important to manage, protect, and replace trees.

Early Arbor Day celebrations, into the mid-nineteenth century, featured speeches, formal poetry readings and songs about trees. More recently, Arbor Day programs often combine gardening and sports activities with the environmental fervor of Earth Day events of the 1970s.

arbor day activities list

Composting demonstrations, recycling drives, and 5K runs are not unusual. But the notion that trees clean the air, clean the water and make landscapes more livable is as topical today as it was during the time of Mr. Morton.

During the mid-1800s, new inventions, such as the steam locomotive and circular saw helped drive industry deeper into remote US forests in search of wood products. The forests supplied timber, pulp for paper, and bark for the chemicals needed for tanning leather. Once forest clearing reached its peak in the late 1800s, a conservation movement took hold, with the goal of forest protection and regeneration.

Today, that thought and effort continue with yearly celebrations like Arbor Day. And although 41% or 2.56 million acres of Maryland is still forested, these numbers still represent a loss of 3% between the last two surveys conducted in 1986 and 1999 by the USDA Forest Service. So perhaps J. Sterling Morton, founder of Arbor Day said it best.

“Other holidays repose on the past. Arbor Day proposes the future.”

Keep Arbor Day alive with one of the activities below, and if you’re so inclined, feel free to give a tree a great big hug!

Official State Trees:

  • Maryland: White Oak (Quercus alba)
  • Virginia: Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)
  • Washington, DC: Scarlet Oak, also known as Red Oak (Quercus coccinea)
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