Trees in an urban setting

Photo: Konstanttin/Shutterstock

No holiday has changed the American landscape like Arbor Day.

On April 10, 1872, Nebraskans celebrated the first Arbor Day by planting more than 1 million trees.

The holiday was proposed by J. Sterling Morton, a Detroit native and pioneer who moved into the Nebraska territory and used his position at Nebraska's first newspaper to advocate for trees.

Arbor Day was celebrated in every state in the union by April 15, 1907, when President Theodore Roosevelt issued an Arbor Day Proclamation to the School Children of the United States, stressing the importance of trees and forestry.

He wrote in part: "A people without children would face a hopeless future; a country without trees is almost as hopeless; forests which are so used that they can not renew themselves will soon vanish, and with them all their benefits."

Roosevelt's words are just as poignant all these years later. These days, National Arbor Day is celebrated on the last Friday in April, and the holiday has been exported around the world.

The exact number of trees that have been planted since that first Arbor Day in 1872 is unknown. The National Arbor Day Foundation, the largest nonprofit membership organization dedicated to planting trees, distributes and plants about 15 million trees each year. Add in the number of trees planted by school children, cities, towns and homeowners and we can estimate the number of Arbor Day trees at a lot by my calculations.

An Arbor Day for the rest of us: Celebrate Arbor Day without a yard

Many of us have childhood memories of coming home with a sapling from an Arbor Day celebration and eagerly planting that tree in our yard. (Your parents may even have a collection of photos of you  proudly standing next to your Arbor Day trees at various milestones.) But as an adult, you may live in a smaller home, an apartment without a yards, in a dorm or other temporary housing where you cannot plant trees. But you can return to the tree-hugging roots of your childhood this Arbor Day.

Among the list of suggestions for individual celebrations of Arbor Day, the National Arbor Day Foundation suggests volunteering with a local tree-planting organization. You can also create a volunteer opportunity in your neighborhood at the foundation's website.

You can read a book on trees, take a nature walk or attend a class on tree and plant care.

Commemorate a special event by planting a tree in celebration or memory. Each dollar donated to the Arbor Day foundation plants a tree in our nation's forests. You can even print out a personalized certificate at home to give your recipient.

Check with your nearest arboretum for information on Arbor Day events and festivities, or make a donation by becoming a member. This month, many arboretums will be holding plant and tree sales. While you may not have space to plant a tree, you can buy plants for your window box, container garden or vegetable garden plot at a local plant sale instead of at a big box store. The money will do more good locally and you will help tree conservation and research efforts in your community. Many arboretums like the Houston Arboretum and Holden Arboretum in Ohio will be giving away tree seedlings as part of their Arbor Day celebrations.

Learn how to plant a tree

If you are looking to get your hands dirty, learn how to plant a tree. Then join a tree stewardship group or organization like Tree People in Los Angeles, Trees Atlanta, and Open Lands' TreeKeepers in Chicago. Forest trees can live to the ripe old age of 100 years, but urban trees have to deal with a number of issues that can cut their lifespan dramatically short.

Chicago tree tag

When you consider the thousands of dollars that trees give back in environmental benefits, and that studies in Philadelphia and Baltimore have shown that more trees reduce crime, it is the responsibility of urban dwellers to protect and expand our urban forests. Google "TreeKeepers" and your city to find a local group that is planting and maintaining trees where you live.

How will you celebrate Arbor Day this year?

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