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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Here in Australia, Arbor Day is celebrated on the last Sunday in July as National Tree Day. National Schools Tree Day is on the last Friday of July. I wrote the following article on the history of Arbor Day for American writing site Helium …

Arbor Day is a holiday or a day set aside for the planting of trees, ‘arbor’ being Latin for ‘tree’. Looking after trees has a history that goes back to ancient times. The Celts worshipped a number of tree species, such as holly trees. Norsemen believed that ash trees were the foundation of the universe. Over the centuries, less importance was placed on trees and by the 19th century, the wholesale and indiscriminate felling of trees for commercial purposes seemed to be of little concern to most people.

One person who was concerned about trees was J. Sterling Morton of the US. In 1854, he married Caroline Joy French and they moved west to south-eastern Nebraska. The Nebraska City area had just been opened up for settlement and the young couple staked out a 160 acre claim. At the time, the plains of Nebraska had few trees, but Morton knew that the soil and climate would support many trees.

Morton had grown up in New York and Michigan, and he and his wife missed the thickly wooded areas of the east. They planted many trees on their property, including an apple orchard of 300 trees by the late 1850s. He soon became a leading figure in Nebraskan society, becoming editor of the Nebraska City News shortly after his arrival, and was Nebraska Territory secretary from 1858 to 1861. A constant stream of new arrivals to the area meant there was a demand for trees to produce wood for houses, fencing, farm sheds, and so on. Morton had built a good knowledge of farming and forestry methods and advised local people through his newspaper of the tree species they should be planting on their properties.

His standing in the community continued to grow. By the 1870s, he was on the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture, and in 1872 suggested that one day a year should be for planting trees across the state, or a statewide Arbor Day. He organized the day as a competition to see who could plant the most trees, offering a prize of $100 to the winning county and $25 and a ‘farm library’ to the individual winner. Over a million trees were planted on this inaugural Arbor Day.

Other states recognized the good work done by Morton and realized the importance of planting trees, with Kansas and Tennessee legislating for an Arbor Day in 1875. In 1885, Arbor Day in Nebraska was set as 22 April, Morton’s birthday. Many other states followed suit and established their own Arbor Day. Nebraska became known as the ‘Tree Planters State’, with 700,000 acres of trees by 1885.

At the federal level, 50,000 people turned out to a tree planting day in 1882 held by the American Forestry Congress. The National Education Association gave its support to Arbor Day in 1884 when it suggested that the day be recognized in all US schools. In 1893, Morton became the US Secretary of Agriculture and was able to further promote the idea of Arbor Day and the planting of trees.

Morton died in 1902 but his legacy lived on. Arbor Day was observed in 45 states by 1920, and is now recognized by all states. A National Arbor Day has been established by a number of presidents, although in practice, dates for the celebration vary across states due to different climate patterns. The most commonly used day is the last Friday in April.

The popularity of Arbor Day in the US quickly spread to other countries. In Australia, Arbor Day started in 1889 in Adelaide, capital of South Australia. In Queensland, the first Arbor Day ceremony was at Brisbane’s Botanic Gardens in 1890, with 2,500 trees being distributed to schools. The country now has a National Tree Day in late July.

In New Zealand, the initial Arbor Day was in 1890. Great support was received in that country by leading botanist Dr Leonard Cockayne who promoted tree planting in schools in the early 20th century. This nation has held its Arbor Day on 5 June, World Environment Day, since 1977.

Taiwan held its first Arbor Day in 1927 as a result of a recommendation to the Agriculture and Forestry ministry by Nanking University in 1914. Mainland China started Arbor Day in 1981, stipulating that everyone should aim to plant 3-5 trees a year. Germany has celebrated Arbor Day since 1952 and the Netherlands from 1957.

Many countries across all continents now celebrate Arbor Day. What started in a newly settled area in remote Nebraska in the 1850s has become a worldwide movement.