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TREES, PLEASE! Arbor Day, “Sylvan” Day or Día del Árbol?

By Robin Y. Rivet, for Let’s Talk Plants! April 2023.

Tree City USA Sign. Arbor Day Foundation (This is a public domain image from the military )

Arbor Day, “Sylvan” Day or Día del Árbol?

“Other holidays repose upon the past; ‘Arbor Day’ proposes for the future.” – J. Sterling Morton.

The complex man behind that 1885 quote - supported planting trees as an American ideal. He believed that trees would serve as effective windbreaks, protect crops from erosion and overexposure to the sun, and could provide food, fuel and building materials. Unfortunately, the great plains never got enough trees planted to prevent the horrific dust-bowl; a result of over-plowing, poor farming practices and severe drought. And, surprisingly, Morton did not support agrarianism, the idea that the masses might benefit from family farming and equitable land ownership. And, despite giving rousing speeches that equated planting trees with “God’s work”; his near religious fervor for trees found him also opposing civil rights, so some say his Nebraska legacy was tainted, although his son Joy later founded the revered Morton Arboretum. Today, there is research to preserve Nebraska’s 80 yr. old trees to prevent another dust bowl.

Ultimately, J. Sterling Morton’s determination to promote trees ushered in America’s inaugural Arbor Day on April 10, 1872. Serving on the State Board of Agriculture and as a prominent newspaper editor, he challenged Nebraska’s counties and individuals to win contests by properly planting 1000’s of trees. It was so successful, that an alleged million trees were planted that day – a milestone in its time. Other states also adopted tree planting efforts during the 1870’s, but it took another 13 years to formally proclaim Morton’s birthday April 22, 1885, as the official Nebraska state holiday.

Ironically, if it hadn’t been for J. Sterling Morton, today we might be celebrating Sylvan Day, and not Arbor Day. “Sylvan” means “wooded”, and members of the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture preferred that term, but Morton insisted on the word “Arbor” because it included orchard trees - along with forested species, so the word stuck. As a wealthy businessman, Morton had purchased 160 acres in Nebraska City and built a mansion, showcasing 270 different fruit and ornamental species – many still standing today. It is now home to the Arbor Lodge State Historical Park. It wasn’t until 1972, 100 years after the first planting that the Arbor Day Foundation became a reality; whose powerful efforts still promote “all things trees”.

Although Morton is credited with launching the concept, in 1883 a man named Birdsey Northrop from Connecticut delivered a global message to Japan about Arbor Day aspirations, and that same year, the American Forestry Association made Northrop the Chairman of the committee to campaign for Arbor Day nationwide in America; and it was Northrup who helped spread the idea to Canada, Australia and Europe.

“Arbor Day” – 1932 Painting by Grant Wood Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) free to use photo.

However, the 19th century was not the first era to think that trees demanded commemoration. The Spanish word for tree is “árbol”, and long before the United States was a blip on a map, a Spanish village called Mondoñedo held the first documented arbor day plantation festival in the world, organized by its mayor in 1594. The place was called Alameda de los Remedios, and to this day, lime and horse-chestnut trees are planted every year. And, according to Spanish professor Miguel Herrero Uceda; 80 years before Nebraska’s declaration, the village of Villanueva de la Sierra, Spain - established the world’s first modern “Arbor Day” or “Día del Árbol” in 1805. Thankfully, around the world today, Arbor Day is now celebrated in numerous countries on many different dates. Sadly, across the US, many cities are challenged to meet even the minimum requirements to become a TREE CITY USA. Some arborists like myself, and other colleagues - believe more due diligence may be needed.


Member Robin Rivet is an ISA Certified Arborist & UCCE Master Gardener – contact her:


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