Today is Arbor Day, an annual spring fixture whose rich and colorful history I had known very little about. The day was first established in Nebraska on January 4, 1872, by J. Sterling Morton, who had moved with his wife from Detroit to Nebraska in 1854. At that time, Nebraska was a windswept, largely treeless territory. Morton was a journalist and editor of the largest — perhaps the only — newspaper in Nebraska. He was also a tree-planting advocate and used his newspaper to spread information about the need for trees to provide shade, windbreaks, to keep soil in place and to provide fuel and building materials. He encouraged individuals and civic organizations to plant trees and eventually, he proposed a tree-planting holiday to be called “Arbor Day” at a meeting of the State Board of Agriculture. The date was set for April 10, 1872. Counties and individuals were awarded prizes for planting the most trees on that day. It was estimated that more than one million trees were planted in Nebraska on the first Arbor Day.
Other states soon followed suit, declaring Arbor Day an opportunity for civic engagement and for recognizing the importance of the natural world. Massachusetts adopted Arbor Day in 1886. A chief magistrate announcing the holiday proclaimed: “I am deeply impressed with the benefit which would result from a general and zealous observance of the day. Waste tracts may be clothes with verdure. Houses may be draped with vines and adorned with flowers and shrubs. The wayside may be made beautiful. Many glories of nature we owe to the generous foresight of our fathers. On the country road and on the city street let us make equally liberal provision for those who shall follow us.” Over the next several years, there was increasing public sentiment to make Arbor Day primarily a focus for school children. In 1896, a columnist for the Boston Sunday Post wrote: “It was discovered that none destroyed trees as ruthlessly as children and that none were so anxious to cut them down as young men and contractors and youthful builders just reaching the age when, as men, their commandments would be law to others. To interest the children of the public schools seemed the best way to begin.”
An editorial in the Boston Globe, published April 29, 1899, proposed that Arbor Day should be held on a school day “in order that it might be kept by our schools … with special lessons to be studied only in the open air and from nature’s own book. Tree planting, plant development and flower culture could be combined most felicitously on a school ‘outing,’ fixed for some day about the middle of May.”
By 1911, Arbor Day was well established. In his annual Arbor Day proclamation, Governor Eugene Noble Foss declared: “The day should be observed throughout the commonwealth; trees, shrubs, and vines and neglected trees cared for, and gardens beautified. Classes of school children, under the direction of their teachers, should plant seeds, or set out saplings, according to some carefully arranged plans. It will thus not only help in building up the future of our woodlands but serve as a valuable lesson in systematic cooperation.” Foss urged that “individual tree owners must do their duty to suppress gypsy moths and other pests. The Commonwealth cannot do this without their help.” In the aim of improving country and suburban life and agriculture, “no better start can be made than by taking a keener personal interest in the trees and by working actively to safeguard and develop the fruit and timber products of the state.”
The common practice was for school children to gather for recitations and poems, including a reading of William Cullen Bryant’s “Forest Hymn,” which had been voted by school teachers to be the most beautiful poem of outdoor life. Children, adorned with flowers, were then sent out to plant seedlings along roadsides and in parks.
It seems that Arbor Day does not involve school children to the extent it has in the past. But schools are invited to participate in a statewide contest for 5th-graders to create Arbor Day posters. These days, local towns observe Arbor Day by planting trees and hosting other tree-related events. In Northampton, the DPW will give away 500 tree whips at City Hall on Apr. 26 from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Apr. 27 from 8 a.m. to noon. The trees offered include hop hornbeams, persimmons and sugar maples. The DPW will also plant trees in front of the Cahill Apartments on Fruit St. and next to the YMCA on Massasoit St.
Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the Get Growing column since 2016.
On Apr. 27 and 28, Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston will host the Bay State African Violet Society Show and Sale. If you’ve always been curious about these intriguing house plants this is a great opportunity to dive in. Many unusual varieties of African violets will be on display and available for sale. Open Sat. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The weekend will also feature classes on how to grow African Violets from 1 to 2 p.m. The classes will teach plant identification, repotting techniques, and information on requirements for soil, fertilizer, watering, and light. The show and classes are free with admission to the garden. To register for the class, go to: towerhillbotanic.org.
On May 4, from 1 to 4 p.m., the Lenox Garden Club will host a judged show that includes design, horticulture and photography divisions. The show will take place at the Center House at BBG. On May 5, BBG will hold its annual Roy Boutard Day, celebrating the opening of the garden’s 85th season. The Horticulture Certificate Program graduation will also take place, followed by a traditional Mai Bowle (that’s a May wine punch, by the way) Reception hosted by the Herb Associates. Both events are free and open to the public.