Arbor Day quiz: What is America's national tree?

Hint: Sequoias, dogwood, and maple were runners-up for America's national tree, according to an Arbor Day Foundation poll. But rest assured, Congress made the final decision.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Arbor Day: A visitor passes a blooming dogwood tree in Capitol Park Sacramento, Calif., April 14.

Happy Arbor Day! The last Friday in April is when the United States celebrates trees. So, in the name of all things living and wooden, we ask you this question: Do you know what America’s National Tree is?

Did you even know America had a National Tree species?

It’s the oak. Congress gave oaks the US top tree status in 2004, via a vote. So it’s official, the law of the land – just like health-care reform.

Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R) of Virginia and Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska were the main sponsors of the oak bill. Why them? At the time, Representative Goodlatte was chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. Senator Nelson is from the state where Arbor Day got its start.

“The oak tree will now be as much a symbol of America as Thanksgiving Day, Old Glory, the 'Star Spangled Banner,' and the bald eagle,” Nelson said at the time the bill passed.

Hmmm. We’ve seen flags and eagles featured at Super Bowl halftimes, but nary an oak. Have you ever seen a marching band carrying oaks in a July 4 parade? Neither have we.

To be fair, oaks are native to 49 of the 50 US states (and you yourself can grow them from acorns). They’re strong, useful, and embedded in US history. Since Colonial days they’ve been sawed into ships, homes, and furniture. The Charter Oak in Connecticut is where they hid the state constitution during a political crisis in 1687. The “iron” sides of the US Navy’s Old Ironsides in fact were oak. The magnificent oaks of the northern California coast are perhaps the tallest trees on earth.

Whoops, scratch that last one – it’s sequoias that are the giants of the forest.

Prior to the 2004 congressional tree vote, the Arbor Day Foundation ran a poll to measure support for the various candidates. Oaks won handily. Sequoias (aka redwoods) finished second. Dogwood, maple, and pine rounded out the top five.

Is it too late to have Congress name maple syrup National Tree Product That Tastes Best On Waffles?

As to the history of Arbor Day, it was begun by Nebraska journalist J. Sterling Moron to promote the planting of trees useful as wind breaks, fuel, and building material on the plains.

Nebraskans planted 1 million trees on the first Arbor Day, held in April 1872. In 1885 it was named an official state holiday.

Arbor Day generally is a state thing. Nineteen states observe it on the last Friday in April – and occasionally, US presidents have issued a proclamation naming a national Arbor Day at that same time. Some states hold it at other times of the year to coincide with better tree-planting weather. That means January or February in the far South and May in the far north.

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