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Morton’s Salt and His Trees

In an essay about the importance of salt in the Roman economy, Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus wrote in 523AD: “Upon your industry all other products depend, for although there may be someone who does not seek gold, there never yet lived the man who does not desire salt, which makes every food more savory.”

As any botanist will tell you, too much salt is toxic to most land plants. But there is one place where salt has been good for plants, especially trees.

Joy Sterling Morton (the name Joy came from his mother Caroline Joy French) was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1855 and grew up in Nebraska City, Nebraska. He was the son of newspaperman and politician Julius Sterling Morton who served as Secretary of Agriculture under President Grover Cleveland 1893 – 1897, yet who is most well known as the founder of Arbor Day in 1872 while a member of the Nebraska state board of agriculture. Early in his life Joy acquired a love of trees from his father Julius. In fact, the Morton family motto was “Plant Trees”.

After having worked for railroad companies in Nebraska and Illinois, in 1880, Joy Morton moved to Chicago and with backing from his father, invested $10,000 in a salt distributing company that Ezra Wheeler had founded in 1848. Joy soon proved to be an astute business man, and in 1886 became owner of the company after Wheeler’s death. He renamed the company the Joy Morton Company, and later changed it to the Morton Salt Company.

The company grew rapidly, and by 1910 when Morton incorporated his company, it was already recognized as North America’s largest supplier of salt. By then Morton was buying salt from mines in Michigan, brine wells in Louisiana and New York and other parts of the country, and eventually from around the world. Morton was quick to point out that where ever it came from, his salt was the highest quality available. He is quoted as saying: “The final product is of such uniform high quality and grain that inspections under a microscope cannot reveal a difference between Morton salt made in New York and Morton salt made in California.” Although Cassiodorus may have been exaggerating a bit about the importance of salt over gold, it is true that today most American kitchens contain a box or two of Morton salt whether the family owns any gold or not.

Over the years, Morton became a salt innovator as well as a salt distributor. For example, as his salt brand grew in popularity, Morton decided he needed to do something to prevent the salt from lumping when it got moist, a problem all salt has. After trying a number of ideas, in 1911 he started adding magnesium carbonate to his salt and that solved the problem of moist salt crystals sticking together. Later the company also used calcium silicate, an anticaking agent.

To promote the idea that his salt crystals did not lump together when damp, he had his advertising agency, the N.W. Ayer Company, work on the project and they came up with the Morton girl, a girl who looks about 8 years old walking in rain and holding an umbrella and a box of Morton salt that is pouring out. She first appeared in 1914 and is still popular today, having changed her dresses and hairstyles several times over the years in order to stay fashionable. For over a hundred years she has been reminding us that ‘when it rains – it pours.’

It was about that time that Morton came up the idea of the round box for his salt and he patented the small metal pouring spout on its top. Both of these innovations are still in use.

Morton also used his product to help solve one of the major health problems of his day. In modern America, we do not worry much about goiters, but in the early 1900s, some people’s diets in America and in other countries did not contain enough iodine to keep the thyroid gland, located in the neck adjacent to the trachea, from swelling into a goiter. Also, it was discovered that iodine deficiency could cause developmental problems in children. To combat these problems, in the early 1900s, the Swiss began putting iodine in cooking salt. This caught the attention of researchers at the University of Michigan such as David Cowie, chairman of the Department of Pediatrics, who began promoting the idea that iodine should be added to people’s food. And since nearly everybody used salt, adding iodine to salt would make it available to a large percentage of the population. So in 1924, Morton, on the recommendation of the Michigan Medical Association, began putting small amounts of iodine in his salt, greatly reducing the goiter and iodine deficiency problem in America.

Morton, as a shrewd entrepreneur, made several profitable investments outside his salt business, not the least of which was to team up with mechanical engineer Charles L. Krum in the development of what came to be the teletype machine. After a number of technological innovations and several patents, the company was sold in 1930 to American Telephone and Telegraph company for $30,000,000, which is nearly $500,000,000 in today’s dollars.

Over the years Morton prospered and in 1909 he purchased a large tract of land in Lisle, Illinois about 25 miles west of Chicago. There he built a large residence and set up a working farm where he produced vegetables, beef, pork, sheep and other farm products. Not long after establishing the farm, which he named Thornhill Estate after his family’s ancestral village in Scotland, Morton began making plans for an arboretum where he could grow trees from around the world and study them scientifically.

As Morton planned his arboretum, he sought advice from a number of landscape designers such as Charles Sprague Sargent, who had been instrumental in the establishment of the 281-acre Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University in 1872. He also studied the work of William Law Olmstead who had been the main designer of the 843-acre Central Park in New York City.

By 1922, Morton was ready to open the Morton Arboretum with a large collection of trees and plants on 400 acres of his estate. It was an instant success, attracting visitors and scientist from around the country. He continued to expand the arboretum, and by the time of his death in 1934, the arboretum had grown to 735 acres and had become internationally recognized as an important tree science center. Since then, the Morton Arboretum has continued to grow and currently encompasses some 1,700 acres crisscrossed with over 25 miles of trails.

The mission of the arboretum has always been to collect and study trees, shrubs, flowers, and a variety of plants from around the world. The arboretum today is not only a place where people come to enjoy the beauty of the trees, flowers and other plants, as well as the lakes, the restored prairie, or attend  a variety of tree-related festivals, it is also recognized as a center where some of the best tree and plant research in the world is being done.

For example, one of the current projects involves working with cities around the world in helping them choose the best trees to plant along their urban sidewalks. Urban trees must be tough to withstand polluted air, compacted soil, poor drainage, and limited space, while also enhancing the overall beauty of the urban environment. Today, planted along many city sidewalks, we see a lot of sycamores or plane trees, some pin oaks, dogwoods and a few other varieties. But cities are always looking for different species that will fit a particular urban setting.

There are numerous research projects underway in the field and laboratories at the arboretum that study every aspect of tree growth and health from the photosynthesis in leaves to the symbiotic relationship tree roots have with mycorrhizal fungi in soil.  For example, experiments run from measuring the diameter of  branches that break during high winds[MLM1] , precisely measuring how much a tree trunk swells when the roots absorb water during rain, to how root diameter and length, and the presence or absence of mycorrhizal fungi in the soil effect the acquisition of nitrogen and other soil resources[MLM2] . The entire ecosystem is covered from individual trees to entire forest systems.

Along with the research done at the arboretum itself, several Morton employees are also involved in outreach programs in the Chicago metropolitan area. One of these is the Chicago Region Tree Initiative. Established in 2014, CRTI brings together about 200 partners from industry, community, and government organizations to promote tree planting and care in communities around Chicago. Trees are planted in neighborhoods, on school grounds, vacant lots, and other places enhancing the beauty of Chicago and its suburbs.

Another successful program, the All About Trees Club, is an education summer camp for children aged 8 to 18. Here students learn about the importance of trees in our environment as well as how trees grow from roots to leaf tips.

Besides the science being done at the arboretum, the Morton Arboretum is simply a great place to visit. Nestled in the busy suburbs west of Chicago, it is an oasis of beauty and calm where a person could spend a few minutes winding down after a hectic day or roam for hours absorbing the ambiance of everything from the visual beauty to the fragrance of the many flowers in the summer, or go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing in the winter.

It is a place for all seasons and all ages from a four-acre children’s playground and maze, to gardening and tree care workshops, and book discussions in the library. The Illumination of Trees from November to January is an impressive light show, and one of many festivals, exhibitions, and educational programs held throughout the year.

Today the Morton arboretum, whose motto is ‘The Champion of Trees’ is home to over 220,000 catalogued plants from around the world representing over 4,200 different species. It currently employs some twenty [MLM3] PhD scientists, dozens of tree and plant technicians who help run the array of on-going experiments, and a large group of volunteers who help maintain the trails and keep the arboretum in excellent condition. It also houses one of the world’s premier botanical and horticultural libraries.

Joy Sterling Morton’s salt has turned out to be very good for trees. The research done at the Morton Arboretum is helping trees all over the world to keep growing and stay healthy. Through research done there we understand why it is crucial to keep planting trees and what it takes to grow healthy trees in a number of different environments from dry desert to lush rain forest. And now and in the years to come, the changing global environment is making tree research even more important. In a warming environment, it is important to understand why some tree species will flourish while others will struggle.

The first trees evolved around 385 million years ago and were well established by the time Homo sapiens came along. We humans have evolved with trees and have learned to use them in innumerable ways from fire wood, to construction material, to learning about the complex chemistry of the cellulose and lignan found in wood, and how to use those chemicals in medicine and industry.  And who can deny the aesthetic value of trees in our lives. We climb them as children and lounge in their shade as adults. They are vital to our well-being. For over one hundred years the Morton Arboretum has been a very busy place doing good research for the health of trees, and through them, doing good work for all of humanity.

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