Arbor Day 2016: A Celebration of Forests, Trees, and Plants

Today, the United States and people all over the world are celebrating Arbor Day! On Arbor Day, communities are encouraged to plant trees and recognize the value of trees and forests around their homes and in their cities and countries. 

As a horticulturist for the General Services Administration, I cultivate and maintain all of the gardens at the U.S. Department of State facilities in the Washington, D.C. area. To recognize Arbor Day, we are planting American chestnut tree saplings and pollinator friendly plants such as Milkweed on the grounds of our training facility, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). Our Arbor Day activities are part of the State Department’s global efforts to protect increasingly important forests and trees from deforestation, illegal logging, invasive species, and outbreaks of pests. 

Darren DeStefano, horticulturist for the General Services Administration, Gail Neelon, Acting Deputy Director of the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, and Bruce Levine, Vice President of the Maryland Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation planting an American chestnut tree at the Foreign Service Institute on Arbor Day. [State Department photo]

Despite threats ranging from disease to deforestation, trees continue to thrive as the largest and oldest living organisms on earth. The Bristlecone Pines of the North American Great Basin laugh at the sands of time even when compared to the pyramids, while their not so distant Redwood brethren tower above the earth to heights difficult to perceive with the naked eye. Trees, which cover about 30 percent of the Earth’s land surface, are incredibly efficient biological machines that pump hundreds of gallons of water up to incredible heights while creating oxygen and cellulose so passively there is not even a sound. Trees literally produce the air we breathe and help to reduce climate change by absorbing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Additionally, 1.6 billion people depend on trees for their livelihoods. The myriad products that are derived from trees are not limited to food and timber, but also include rubber, medicines like quinine, and much more.

Planting Trees to Celebrate Conservation

Historically, the American chestnut played a large role in the U.S. economy and was the dominant species of eastern North American tree at the turn of the 19th century. Its wood built Victorian era houses while its nuts were the staple of all manners of wildlife. The importation of the chestnut blight, a windborne fungal pathogen brought to the United States from Asian chestnut trees, decimated the vast stands of American chestnuts, essentially killing every mature tree by the 1930’s. Never one to give up, American chestnuts in forest tracks of Appalachia still sprout from their old stumps every year where they grow for some duration of time before inevitably contracting the still prevalent disease and dying back. Scientists have been breeding hybridized chestnuts for over 50 years in hope of restoring the once majestic tree. 

In support of the efforts of The American Chestnut Foundation to rebuild the American chestnut population, Under Secretary Catherine Novelli planted two American chestnut trees on the grounds of Potomac Hill across from the Department of State’s headquarters in celebration of Earth Day. Additionally, for Arbor Day we are planting five more saplings at FSI.

Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the EnvironmentCatherine Novelli and OES Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Anne Hall planting an American chestnut tree on the grounds of Potomac Hill across from the Department of State’s headquarters in celebration of Earth Day. [State Department photo]

Overall, the grounds of FSI are planted in an arboretum style and ecologically managed with hundreds of species of trees and plants that serve as both a beautiful setting and a teaching tool. Culturally significant species in the gardens include Lebanese Cedars (Cedrus libani) and Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa), which both appear on national flags as well as rare plants of international origin such as XChitalpa tashkentesis (Uzbekistan) and Quercus dentata ‘Pinnatifida’ (Japan). Closer examination of the gardens reveals lessons in history, global trade, cultural exchange, ecological issues, and low impact development. The campus is rich with wildlife; monarchs and swallow tails are common sites as are blue jays, cardinals, and goldfinch. Even a redtail hawk regularly stalks the grounds. 

FSI gardens also contain pollinator friendly plants. Due to the serious decline of pollinators around the world, the United States has taken action to help protect pollinators through President Obama’s Presidential Memorandum on Pollinator Health and the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators. Due to this strong commitment to protect pollinators, we have planted pollinator friendly plants throughout the 72 acre FSI campus to benefit local pollinators.    

Today, on Arbor Day, we celebrate the significant role that forests and trees play in our world. I encourage you all to learn more about the threats to our forests and trees and to show your support by planting a tree of your own!  

About the Author: Darren DeStefano serves as a horticulturist for the federal governments’ General Services Administration. 

For More Information:

  • Read Under Secretary Catherine Novelli’s article in the Mercury News about how forests are nature’s built-in climate regulators.
  • Learn about how a unique initiative focused on forests will help to combat against climate change in Under Secretary Catherine Novelli’s DipNote blog.
  • Watch the video Forests: Nature's Climate Solution — How Can You Help?
  • Follow the State Department's Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs on Facebook and follow @StateDeptOES on Twitter. 



James D.
Virginia, USA
October 4, 2016
Mr. DeStefano, is there any way we can be in touch by email? I have a few questions to ask you. Also, I recently saw a blog post about you on Robert E. Quinn's blog The Positive Organization ( Best regards, James Dewey
An American chestnut tree in Grassy Creek, North Carolina. About 50 feet tall, the tree has yet to show signs of the blight that has all but wiped out the iconic American species.
Posted by Darren DeStefano
April 29, 2016


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