ATLANTA, Georgia—Arbor Day, a time to celebrate tree planting, was initiated by a pioneer in the then-nearly-treeless Nebraska Territory. On January 4, 1872, J. Sterling Morton proposed to the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture a tree-planting holiday to be called “Arbor Day”; this was officially proclaimed by the Nebraska Governor in 1874 and championed nationally in a 1907 proclamation by President Theodore Roosevelt to the children of the United States.
Although National Arbor Day* is the last Friday in April, the best tree-planting time for the Southeast is much earlier, so Georgians celebrate Arbor Day in February. Atlantans don’t worry about frozen soils or heaving problems—one year I remember planting some bargain bulbs in January, late even for me, and being surprised that the surface soil was temporarily frozen to 2 or 3 inches deep.
This Arbor Day, February 21, interesting woody ornamentals such as herbal trees and shrubs might be a good target for budding arborists. While the familiar understory sassafras (Sassafras albidum) has spectacular apricot to orange fall color, it is notoriously hard to transplant successfully. Witch hazel (Hamamelis ¥intermedia) is another story. I planted a container-grown specimen in the middle of a July heat wave, and it is thriving. Hybrid witch hazel cultivars include the golden ‘Arnold Promise’ and firy ‘Diana’.
Another choice herbal selection is wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox), which grows as a very large shrub or multi-trunked small tree. Wintersweet is highly fragrant and can scent an entire courtyard from January to March. Tea-olive (Osmanthus fragrans), beloved of Southerners, does likewise in the autumn months and is fragrant enough to turn heads. A friend in Monroe, Georgia, has an extremely old one growing beside her antebellum home with surprisingly bright orange flowers tucked into the leaf axils in clusters. The evergreen myrtle (Myrtus communis) survives most winters in Atlanta and grows to a small shrub. Fragrant flowers are pinkish or white in summer and subsequently loaded with blue-black, football-shaped fruits in the autumn months.
When Arbor Day rolls around for your state, prepare the soil for your herbal treasures by forking over the soil in a generously wide but shallow planting hole. Woody selections should be planted at the same depth they are growing in the container or nursery. Use organic mulch after planting, out to beyond the drip line or circle of branches. Water thoroughly at weekly intervals throughout the spring and summer to be sure the tree or shrub becomes well established.
*National Arbor Day occurs on the last Friday of April each year, however some states observe Arbor Day on different dates based on their best tree-planting times. For information on your state’s Arbor Day, contact the National Arbor Day Foundation, 100 Arbor Ave., Nebraska City, NE 68410; www.arbor day.org/arborday/arborDayDates.html
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