Unlike Earth Day, which is celebrated on April 22 every year, Arbor Day is a bit of a moving target. While National Arbor Day is always the last Friday in April, many states observe their Arbor Days on different dates based on the best tree-planting times in their areas. For example, Florida and Louisiana celebrate Arbor Day on the third Friday in January, while South Carolina reserves the first Friday in December for the occasion. Most other states schedule their Arbor Days somewhere in-between.
However, since I never miss an opportunity to talk about trees and since we’re just a few days out from the national day of observance, I’d like us to think about and recognize trees not only for their carbon sequestering abilities and the health benefits they provide, but how fundamental they are to the very places where we live and to the education not only of young children but to preteens, a group often overlooked in nature studies.
An idea that branched out
As its name (from arbor, Latin for tree) implies, Arbor Day celebrates the preservation, seeding and upkeep of trees. Typically, people celebrate Arbor Day by getting together in groups to plant trees. The day is also meant to emphasize caring for them as a way to sustainably protect our planet’s natural resources.
Arbor Day was founded by Julius Sterling Morton, a Nebraska agriculturalist and newspaper editor. Morton moved to the state with his wife, Caroline, in 1854, a little more than 10 years before Nebraska gained its statehood in 1867. The couple purchased 160 acres in Nebraska City and planted a wide variety of trees and shrubs in what was a primarily a flat stretch of plains.
Morton’s newspaper, Nebraska City News, was the perfect platform for him to spread his knowledge of trees and to stress their ecological importance. His message resonated with his readers, many of whom recognized the lack of forestation in their community. On January 7, 1872, Morton proposed a day that would encourage all Nebraskans to plant trees, and Arbor Day was born, with the first celebration held there on April 10 of that year.
The first Arbor Day’s participants planted an estimated 1 million trees throughout Nebraska. By the 1920s, every state had passed laws that stipulated a certain day to be that state’s Arbor Day. In 1970, Arbor Day became recognized nationwide. It was moved from April 10 to April 22 (Morton’s birthday). In 1989, the holiday was moved to the last Friday in April. Since then, the day has branched out to multiple nations across Europe and to Australia, Canada and Japan.
Academic performance with roots in nature’s nearness
For many sixth-graders, the transition to middle school isn’t easy. Academic demands grow, peer dynamics change and puberty begins, resulting in a predictable and sometimes irreversible slump in academic performance. But a new University of Illinois study suggests an unexpected but potentially potent remedy: trees.
While hundreds of previous studies had shown a positive link between contact with nature and learning outcomes, the studies on nature near schools tended to focus on young children or older learners. To make sure the same pattern was true for middle schoolers—a very vulnerable and overlooked population—the researchers looked at 450 middle schools and nearly 50,000 students in urban, suburban and rural communities in Washington State. They examined no less than 17 variables, including student demographics, neighborhood characteristics and school resources.
What they found was that the more tree cover there was surrounding a school, the better its students did on standardized tests in both math and reading.
Not only did the scientists evaluate the extent of tree cover, but they also compared different kinds of vegetation at various distances from the schools. By using satellite imagery, they were able to differentiate tree cover from grass and shrubs. The hope was that they might be able to offer concrete guidance to landscape architects, principals and school boards interested in putting the greenness-achievement link to work, providing clues as to what should be planted and where. From a practical standpoint, trees cost more to install than grass. So, if school districts could get away with just planting grass, it could provide some cost savings.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Trees far and away made more impact on positive test scores than other types of vegetation. But compared with other school resource investments, planting trees around a schoolyard is still an incredibly cheap and effective intervention. Getting school districts to accept that a treeless schoolyard may actually be contributing to poor school performance when other demands seem so much more pressing, however, could be a challenge.
The satellite images also helped precisely pinpoint where tree cover mattered most. Results showed that trees closer to the schools (for example, 270 yards—about two blocks—versus 1,100 yards) made all the difference, even when controlling for greenness at farther distances. In other words, even if the larger neighborhood was leafy, students were no better off if the schoolyard wasn’t.
But why would trees boost test scores? Previous studies point to a cause-and-effect relationship between nature and learning, with more exposure to nature resulting in improved concentration, greater classroom engagement and less disruptive behavior. No surprise, then, that students in schools with nearby trees perform better.
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many schoolchildren to resort to remote learning, and school greenness won’t make much of a difference if kids aren’t leaving their houses. But whether they are physically in school or not, contact with nature could be critical right now. One of the big benefits of greenery, and one of the reasons that scientists think it affects academic achievement, is because it’s an extremely powerful stress reliever. So, having access to nature is more important than ever.
Leafing through the maple tree data in China
In ecosystems around the globe, the danger of being a common or widespread species is the tendency to be neglected by conservation efforts that prioritize rarity. But foundation species—some of which are extremely common—are the ones upon which ecosystems are built and supported.
In an effort to identify forest foundation species and elevate their conservation status before they disappear, a recent, unique research collaboration between American and Chinese scientists investigated long-term biodiversity data from 12 immense, forest study plots spanning 1,500 miles, from China’s far north to its southern tropics.
The results of the study, published in the journal Ecology, point to maple trees as a potential foundation species in both China and North America. Regrettably, the latest Red List published by Botanic Gardens Conservation International shows that 36 of the 158 maple species worldwide—nearly a quarter of all maples—are at high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future. Fourteen of those high-risk species exist only in China.
Rather than disregard foundation species because they lack the appeal and cachet of rarities, conclude the researchers, we should pay more attention to them and protect them before their inevitable decline.
The botany of bigness, bouncing back and Bahrain
Trees are amazing beings. The Pando, a clonal colony of quaking aspen trees located in Fishlake National Forest on the western edge of the Colorado Plateau in south-central Utah, may be the oldest living organism on the planet. In New York City, the September 11 Survivor Tree is an exemplar of 911’s botany of grief, but also of resiliency. In the heart of Bahrain’s isolated desert, the famous Tree of Life is known for being the only green, living thing in a harsh and unforgiving landscape.
So, it’s no wonder that we’re fascinated by trees. We dedicate trees to loved ones. We write notes to them. We give them personalities and voices. No matter how you see trees, they undeniably comfort us, help us, inspire us and remind us how life marches on.
Especially today, as climate change becomes an ever-increasing threat, Julius Sterling Morton’s words about Arbor Day resonate just as strongly as they did in 1872: “Other holidays repose upon the past; Arbor Day proposes for the future.”
I hope that whenever Arbor Day happens in your area—or in honor of the national Arbor Day that just passed—you’ll take a moment to consider the trees and all they do for us.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,
P.S. If you’re a fan of trees like I am, please check out these Natural Habitat Adventures’ tours.