Spring 2008 – Arbor Day and The Bottle Tree

Any virtual exploration of Arbor Day must begin at www.arborday.com where you will find lots of information about the importance of trees. Arbor Day’s founder, J. Sterling Morton understood how trees impact all life of Earth. As Secretary of Agriculture under President Grover Cleveland, he helped to establish the National Forest Reservations. His home, “Arbor Lodge,” is now a state park. See it at http://library.thinkquest.org/J0111463/arborlodge.htm. You can take a house tour of some of its 52 rooms and their furnishings, including his walnut desk, apple wood chair. and indoor blowing alley. His eldest son, Joy, founder of the Morton Salt Company, transformed his own home, “Thornhill Estate” into the Morton Arboretum. You can read more about Morton family’s history, whose motto was, “Plant Trees” at the history pages of www.mortonarb.org

Arbor Day is celebrated all across America. In the state of Washington at www.dnr.wa.gov/arbor/celebrate/timetocelebrate.html there are lists of planning tips for scout leaders and school teachers. I love the poem by Henry Abbeys under “celebration,” “What Do We Plant When We Plant a Tree?”

In Idaho there are really into it. Visit www.idahoforests.org/arborday.htm#02 . There’s a photo of President Theodore Roosevelt giving his “Arbor Day Proclamation to the School Children of the United States” in 1907, 100 year ago. The things he said then ring true today. Plus, they have a cool word puzzle. At our Arbor Day program on April 27 we’ll have a contest with this puzzle.

In Nebraska, at www.dnr.state.oh.us/tabid.5103/default.aspx, they’ve a short and nicely done biography of J. Sterling Morton with this most excellent quote from him – “Other holidays repose upon the past. Arbor Day proposes for the future.”

But lest we think that Arbor Tree is an exclusively American holiday, join us for this year’s Arbor Day program where we continue our international approach to “Arbor Day Around the World” when we travel to West Africa to learn about the Bottle Tree.

Along with providing oxygen, shade, habitat, wind protection, noise and pollution reduction, materials for thousands of products, respite and artistic inspiration, trees are the also protagonists in the literature and folklore of many countries.

There is practice of African Americans in the South to place bottles and other luminous objects onto the branches of dead trees. This custom was brought to America by West African slaves who continued their tradition of attaching shiny objects to trees. The bottle tree tradition holds that evil spirits are attracted to the bottles and are trapped inside, where they can do no harm.

Glass bottle trees are no longer just a Southern thing – their popularity has grown into a national interest. Recently, the bottle tree has seen new life as a tree-like metal structure with a steady base and branches such as at www.bottletree.com

Among those bit by the Bottle Tree bug are Elmer and his beyond kitsch Bottle Tree Ranch. Find Elmer by doing an advanced Google search with the following words: elmer + bottle tree + ca. If you belong to Flickr, Yahoo’s online image community, you can see a blue collar bottle tree for the bud crowd at #333291065 and a bottle tree that John Travolta would approve of (think disco) at #422810005.

We’ll learn more about the African Bottle Tree custom, decorate the Arboretum’s Bottle Tree and make table-top sized bottle trees to take home at our Arbor Day event.

– Lesley Parness

Lesley Parness is Superintendent of Horticultural Education at The Morris County Park Commission. She can be reached at lparness@morrisparks.net.