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The Origins of Arbor Day

Salt Lake City's Red Butte Garden will offer free admission on Arbor Day, April 26, 2024.
Cory Maylett
WikiMedia Commons
Salt Lake City's Red Butte Garden will offer free admission on Arbor Day, April 26, 2024.

April 26 is Arbor Day!

The roots of this special day to plant trees began over 150 years ago in an unlikely spot: Nebraska City, Nebraska, heart of the Midwest, where the habitat is, well, treeless prairies. But it was that very lack of trees that prompted this holiday. The Nebraska Territory pioneers deeply missed the eastern hardwood forests they had left behind, and they needed trees for windbreaks, fuel, timber and shade. 

It was J. Sterling Morton, a Nebraska newspaper editor, who urged his fellow citizens to plant trees. In 1872, Nebraska's governor declared Arbor Day an official state holiday, and in 1970, it became a national celebration. 

Soon after, the Arbor Day tradition of planting trees in schoolyards became popular. I remember watching my elementary school principal dig a deep hole in the school courtyard to plant a pint-sized maple sapling. Each time I visit my home town in Maryland, I say hello to that tree, now a handsome specimen over 40 feet tall. 

So how will you celebrate Arbor Day? If you live in Salt Lake City, you can enjoy a free stroll and seedling giveaway at Red Butte Garden, Utah's official arboretum. Or you can learn how to plant trees in Riverton City’s free tree-planting workshop.  

Most holidays — like the fourth of July — commemorate something that happened in the past. But Arbor Day is about the future. It celebrates the incredible plants that provide clean air, healthy communities and beauty, now and for years to come.

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is an emeritus professor of both The Evergreen State College and the University of Utah, one of the world’s leading ecologists and a popular science communicator. Dr. Nadkarni’s research and public engagement work is supported by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. @nalininadkarni
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