1 of 2
Larry Sagers
A group of blue spruce trees sits amid other colorful autumn foliage at Red Butte Garden.

Arbor Day is a day set aside for trees.

These magnificent plants have blessed mankind since the beginning of time, providing food, shelter, building materials and other benefits. They also provide many less visible but important modifications to our climates and ecosystems.

It's interesting that the idea for a day honoring trees came from one of the most treeless states in the country. Driving through Nebraska today you see plenty of trees, but there were few trees there in the 1800s. It was this lack of trees that motivated one man to try to change this state from its natural, treeless plain to an arboreal paradise.

J. Sterling Morton joined other pioneers and moved to the Nebraska Territory in 1854. He and his wife loved nature, and they longed for the beauty of the trees they had left behind in Detroit. To make them feel more at home, they planted many trees, shrubs and flowers, which flourished in the Nebraska soil.

Morton was a journalist by profession and became the editor of Nebraska's first newspaper. That gave him a public voice to express his ideas, and he enthusiastically spread agricultural information and his love of trees to his readers. This led to campaigns to promote trees.

Being without trees in the Great Plains created significant problems. Besides the aesthetic considerations, his fellow pioneers needed trees as windbreaks to prevent soil erosion, trees for firewood, trees for building materials and railroad ties, and trees to create shade from the hot sun.

Using his editorial platform, Morton advocated that individuals should plant trees. He further encouraged civic organizations and groups to join his cause. After he became the secretary of the Nebraska Territory, he had additional opportunities to stress the value of planting trees.

At a meeting of the State Board of Agriculture on Jan. 4, 1872, Morton proposed a tree-planting holiday. He recommended it be called Arbor Day. To encourage more projects, prizes were offered to counties and individuals who properly planted the most trees on that day.

Nebraska Gov. Robert W. Furnas made the proclamation on March 12, 1874, and the first Arbor Day was observed April 10, 1874. Morton's dream came true, and it was estimated that more than 1 million trees were planted in Nebraska on the first Arbor Day.

In 1885, Arbor Day was made a legal holiday in Nebraska, and April 22, Morton's birthday, was selected as the date for its permanent observance.

During the 1870s, other states legislated Arbor Day observances, and the tradition began in schools nationwide in 1882. Utah celebrated its first Arbor Day on April 3, 1892. Today, Arbor Day is celebrated in more than 50 countries around the world, and it is estimated that more than 18 million trees are planted during these celebrations each year.

Today, state observances are most commonly set for the last Friday in April. The proclamations vary, and some state Arbor Days are at other times to coincide with the best tree planting weather, from January and February in the South to May in the far North.

So, in observance of Arbor Day, let's take a look at our state tree — the Colorado spruce.

This tree, which is native throughout the Rocky Mountain region, is cold hardy throughout our state and grows to 100 feet high and 25 to 35 feet wide.

Although it is commonly called a blue spruce, plants growing from seed exhibit a variety of colors — from dark green to a silvery blue. Because of this color variation, most trees sold for landscapes are grafted clones.

Some of the improved forms, which are also better landscape selections because they won't grow as large, include:

• Fat Albert is broad, formal tree that grows 10-15 feet high and spreads 10-12 feet wide.

• Hoopsii, a good cultivar, has a dense conical form with blue-white foliage and spreading branches.

• Koster is a blue-gray tree with a sometimes irregular, conical growth.

• Moerheimii has a color similar to Koster but with a more compact and symmetrical shape. It has longer needles than most other blue spruces.

• Montgomery is a slow-growing dwarf form that makes a broad 5-foot-by-5-foot silver mound.

• Thomsen is a tree similar to Hoopsii in color but with a symmetrical and vigorous growth habit. It has needles that are about twice as thick as the common spruce trees.

Finally, don't overlook the weeping variety, Pendula. It has rich gray-green foliage and weeping branchlets. It grows well as a ground cover, or it can also be staked to a desired height when it is young to form a lovely weeping specimen.

Larry A. Sagers is the horticulture specialist, Utah State University Extension at Thanksgiving Point.