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Garden Club of Cape Coral | Florida Arbor Day

By CATHY DUNN - Garden Club of Cape Coral | Jan 12, 2024

Arbor Day is a special day designated to recognize the importance of trees to our environment, and to celebrate the planting, upkeep and preservation of trees. The Latin word for tree is “arbor,” hence the name Arbor Day.

Now celebrated across the United States and throughout the world, Arbor Day has a long and fascinating history. The origins of Arbor Day extend back to the early 1870s in Nebraska City, Nebraska. The journalist Julius Sterling Morton moved to Nebraska in 1854 at the age of 22, more than 10 years before Nebraska achieved statehood in 1867. Morton and his wife purchased 160 treeless acres in Nebraska territory and proceeded to plant thousands of trees on their land. Morton became editor of the state’s first newspaper, The Nebraska City News, which he used as a platform to spread his knowledge of trees, offering agricultural advice and urging fellow residents to plant trees for food, fuel, building material, wind breaks and shade. He was appointed acting governor of the Nebraska Territory in 1858 by President James Buchanan and served in this position until 1861. In these leadership positions he was recognized as a political and agricultural expert, and often gave speeches about the ecological and economic value of trees and urged groups and individuals to plant trees.

Morton served on the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture and in January 1872 made one of his most significant achievements by proposing a tree planting holiday to be called “Arbor Day.” The Agriculture Board agreed, and the first Arbor Day was held on April 10, 1872; the event was a huge success with more than 1 million trees planted.

President Grover Cleveland appointed Morton as the United States Secretary of Agriculture in 1893; in this position he is credited with changing the department into a coordinated service for farmers and for encouraging Cleveland to establish national forest reservations. An interesting historical sidenote: Morton’s son Joy Sterling Morton founded the Morton Salt Company and Argo Starch in Chicago, and established the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois. This 50-acre park includes a public garden and outdoor museum with a library, herbarium and program in tree research including the Center for Tree Sciences.

The Arbor Day tradition quickly spread, and by 1882 schools across the country were participating in planting trees. By 1920 more than 45 states and territories were celebrating Arbor Day, and the event also spread across Europe, Canada and Australia. All 50 states now celebrate Arbor Day, with most states celebrating Arbor Day on the last Friday in April. In recognition of the ideal times to plant trees in different areas, Northern states celebrate in May, and southern states often celebrate earlier. Florida was one of the first states in the nation to celebrate Arbor Day in 1886, and the official Arbor Day in the state is now the third Friday in January.

President Richard Nixon declared National Arbor Day as an official federal holiday in 1970 in conjunction with environmental initiatives such as the Clean Air Act, The Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Most holidays celebrate past events that are memorable, but Arbor Day is a forward-looking holiday that shows hope for our environmental future. By planting trees, we strive to provide cooling shade, wildlife habitats, clean air and water and natural beauty. As Morton stated: “Other holidays repose upon the past; Arbor Day proposes for the future.”

This year the Garden Club of Cape Coral will celebrate Arbor Day by planting Lee County native Sweetbay Magnolia trees at Cultural Park and Sirenia Vista Park Friday, Jan. 19, at 11 a.m. More than 400 trees will be planted to celebrate Florida Arbor Day and the 100th anniversary of the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs. The Duke Energy Foundation is supporting this project with a $20,000 grant that will help garden clubs buy sizable native trees.

Plan to join the Garden Club of Cape Coral as we celebrate the legacy of the visionary J. Sterling Morton on Florida Arbor Day! It is amazing to think that a young man who moved to the barren plains of Nebraska and undertook a massive tree planting endeavor has had such an influence on our nation and the world. Let’s celebrate his forward-thinking gift by participating in the Arbor Day events, and maybe even planting a tree in Morton’s honor in our own garden.

Cathy Dunn is a Lee County Master Gardener Volunteer and a member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral. Visit us at gardenclubofcapecoral.com.