Friday, April 27, 2012

Happy Arbor Day

Hundred year old magnolias planted as seeds or cuttings in the Bishop's Close Garden in Portland
Arbor Day is a national holiday in the United States that falls on the last Friday of every April.  It is a celebration of trees.  Arbor Day's original founder was a man named Sterling Morton.  He was a pioneer who moved to Nebraska in 1854 and as a journalist, become the editor of the Nebraska City News.  He and his wife Caroline were great lovers of nature.  On arrival to Nebraska, like many pioneers, they were affected by the lack of trees there, and began advocating the planting and preservation of trees by writing an article for the paper.  He went on to become Secretary of the Nebraska Territory, and later the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.   The first Arbor Day in Nebraska was celebrated on April 10, 1872.  Prizes were awarded to counties and individuals who planted the most trees, which inspired the planting of more than a million trees in the state on that day.  Arbor Day became a legal holiday in Nebraska in 1885 and the official date chosen was Sterling Morton's birthday on April 22.  Students in schools planted trees that were marked by their respective grades and were then cared for by each class, instilling in young people the idea of planting and tending trees.  The tradition of planting trees began nationwide shortly afterwards.  When I was in grade school we were given tree seedlings to take home and plant in our gardens on Arbor Day, which was instrumental in my wanting to become a garden designer later in life.
Tree planting ceremony with the children of my clients.  
Rare old growth Caribbean coastal forest in Colombia
Trees are essential for our survival on Earth.  They create the stable balance of elements in our atmosphere to make life possible.  They mitigate temperatures, regulate moisture, and bind the soil.  Their symbiotic relationship with a host of other organic components makes this planet hospitable for us as a species to survive.  Yet as a species we tend to strip away life from the Earth's surface and replace it with dead space for short term economic benefit.  It is believed that 30% of all tropical hardwoods used in furniture, and our ever more popular Ipe decks seen in gardening magazines is illegally logged.  That doesn't take in to account that what is legally logged is usually not environmentally responsible.  Plantation trees are grown on what was formerly wild forest.  I've seen vast areas in the tropics turned in to plantations. That teak bench with the seal of approval that makes you feel better came from wood that was grown in eroded monoculture rows of trees with no understory and little benefit to wildlife.

Old Growth Forest on the Rogue River in Southern Oregon
When I was growing up, Eugene, Oregon, my home town, was called the 'Timber capitol of the World'.  In my lifetime, vast areas of virgin forest were felled to supply the state's economy with lots of money.  When the trees were gone, the mills were automated and the economy became stagnant as thousands of timber industry workers were laid off.  Today only about 5% of the original old growth forests remain in the state.  Eugene is no longer the 'Timber Capitol of the World'.  It wasn't sustainable, although the industry still logs as much as it legally can.  In the Northeast of the United States, less than 1% of the original old growth forests remain.  It is far less than that in the Southeast and Southwest, and Great Lakes region.  We've cut it all down.  It is our duty, and essential for our survival that we plant trees and restore our forests.  Planting native trees will have the most benefit to native species, but there are many non native trees that can provide for a diversity of life as well.
Me sitting by the world's largest known Sitka Spruce Tree, Olympic National Park, Washington
Polly Hill Arboretum on the island of Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts is a prime example of how one person planting trees can have a large scale impact.  Polly Hill was a woman who planted seeds, collecting species of native and rare exotic trees from around the world to create a garden that now covers 20 acres.  She preserved another 20 acres of her land as wild forest.  Growing trees from seed requires great patience, and she didn't start doing this until she was 51 years old.  In some ways what is most impressive about the arboretum is the ways the trees are arranged, so that they have room to mature to their best potential.  She had the vision to not pack them too close together so that they would become problematic or competitive with each other later on.  She passed away in 2007 at the age of 101 years, and her seedlings will live on for future enjoyment.  The Big leaf Magnolias (Magnolia macrophylla) and Stewartias, with their beautiful peeling mottled bark are the largest I have ever seen.

Inhaling the fragrance of a Bigleaf Magnolia blossom at Polly Hill Arboretum

Urban areas tend to be heavily paved.  The amount of area that actually contains living organisms tends to be rather small in comparison to the amount of space we need for housing and to drive and park out cars.
An aerial view of a section of the city of Los Angeles shows how trees are the only spots of green, and there aren't enough of them.
Street trees can help mitigate the lifeless lids that street pavement creates, shading the otherwise hot asphalt and reducing temperatures.  Do you have street trees in front of your house?  This could be a good place to consider planting a tree.  It is important to take into account the conditions required to grow in the strip between the sidewalk and curb.  How much space is there?  Will you be watering it?  Are their power lines overhead?  Be very thoughtful and do your research if you don't know what kind of tree to plant.  The city of Portland where I live has an active and successful program called 'Friends of Trees' that has instigated the planting of hundreds of thousands of trees along city streets.  I am not always thrilled with the species on the list, or the predominance of small trees over large ones, which eventually will change the look of streets that now have grand canopies of towering giants, but it is important to take seriously the scale with which a tree will attain with age.  Some trees, like Gingkoes, which I use a lot, will be able to adapt to increased pollution and temperature increases due to Global Warming.  Your town may very well have an organization that can help you make a selection, acquire the tree, and plant it properly.
A Koelreuteria paniculata tree I planted in the parking strip for my next door neighbors this spring.  I grew it from a seedling that I dug up from a clients garden 12 years ago.
Arbor Day is a symbol to remind us of the importance of planting trees.  The pink flowering dogwoods I bought for $10 each 30 years ago when I was quite poor and planted in front of my little house as street trees are in full bloom right now.   They are so beautiful.  Before that there were only two trees on my street.  I've since planted 5 more for my neighbors.  It is one way that I can make the street I live on a more beautiful and environmentally viable place to be.
Cornus florida 'Rubra' trees blooming on Arbor Day in front of my house in Portland
Happy Arbor Day.  Plant a tree!

Trees often outlive us and can become part of our legacy


  1. Wow, fantastic photos, and that big leaf magnolia flower is stunning. We have this in our garden but yet to get a flower, cant wait!

    Gaz Altenative Eden

  2. Simply sublime. Thank you for the walk through your park, Jeffrey!