July 4th is something I look forward to every year. Whether enjoyed at a family picnic or neighborhood cookout, the day-long outdoor activity and recreation combine to create the perfect atmosphere for remembering our nation's founders and the significance of our independence.
And what better way to end the day of celebratory festivities than looking up to the sky to see a fascinating fireworks display - bright flashes of colored lights in the air that flicker silhouettes of trees against twilight's starry night sky.
And don't be surprised that one silhouette you see is of the mighty oak - the U.S. National Tree.
In 2004, the Arbor Day Foundation initiated its own election among the American people to choose the U.S. National Tree. When more than 101,000 nationwide voters cast their ballots for the oak tree, the organization determined the oak was the voters' clear preference.
The Arbor Day Foundation received an impressive number of total votes, including 81,000 for the runner-up, which was the redwood. The Foundation's unique election also marked the first time the entire American public was able to choose a national emblem. In addition to the remarkable number of votes the oak received, Congress passed an historic bill, with the president's signature, that officially named the oak as America's National Tree.
Oaks are magnificent trees, appreciated most for their shade, beauty and lumber. But their historical significance - which illustrates the species' practical uses - dates back to events that involved past U.S. presidents, such as Andrew Jackson, who took shelter under Louisiana's Sunnybrook Oaks en route to the Battle of New Orleans.
Today, more than 60 oak species call America home, making oaks the most widespread hardwoods in the nation. Additionally, the oak dominates American Forests' National Register of Big Trees, on which the 2012 National Champion Tree, the Darlington Oak, is now recognized.
When the oak tree became America's National Tree in 2004, Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska said, "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."