I have a fascination about Moon Trees and in the past have written about them, including a story in a published collection of my favorite articles. This fascination was what brought me to the Botanical Gardens in Asheville, located next to the University of North Carolina – Asheville Campus.
The lot was filling quickly as I found a spot that was still in the shade: it was promising to be a hot and humid day. Getting out of the vehicle, I could see the visitor’s center nearby and headed towards it. I was greeted by a very pleasant lady at the desk. “May I help you?” she inquired as I approached.
“I hope so,” I answered. “Would you happen to know the location of the Moon Tree that is on the grounds of the garden?” A look of confusion crossed her face and I quickly added. “It may also be referred to as the ‘Bicentennial Tree’.”
“I’ve never heard of it, but let’s see what I can find. Are you sure it’s on our grounds?”
“From everything I’ve read, it is a sycamore and it should have a plaque of some kind nearby marking its importance.” The two of us looked over the guide of plants in the gardens and finally settled on a location where it might be. She told me to be on the lookout for the groundskeeper who would probably have a better idea.
As I was getting ready to head out, he entered the building and soon had me heading in the correct direction. I would have passed near by it, but it was far enough off the trail that I would have missed it without his help. I followed the trail that paralleled Reed Creek. I paused a moment to watch a group of kids exploring the waters in the stream before continuing. I was soon at Sycamore Meadow and at the far side of it I could see the tree I wanted. Note: There is nothing along the trail to mark the field as Sycamore Meadow – the name comes from the map the gardens posted online.
A plaque at the base of the sycamore informed me that this was the tree I wanted to see.
Moon Trees are trees that grew from the five hundred seeds taken into space on the Apollo 14 mission by Stuart Roosa who piloted the command module. Roosa had taken five small canisters filled with the seeds from five different trees: Loblolly Pine, Sycamore, Sweetgum, Redwood, and Douglas Fir. While Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell walked on the moon, Roosa and the seeds orbited the moon.
During the decontamination process, the canisters broke open and the experiment was deemed unsuccessful. Note: I’m not one hundred percent sure what the experiment was that Roosa was a part of. It appears that the experiment was to see if the seeds would germinate once they returned from space. If this was the case, then the broken canister should not have made a difference in the experiment.
Upon return, the seeds were taken to National Forest Service stations in Gulfport, Mississippi and Placerville, California. The seeds where planted and most of the seeds sprouted. In 1976 the trees were given away as a part of the bicentennial of the United States. The first was planted at Washington Square, Philadelphia in May 1975. Note: This tree no longer stands, but a second tree grafted from the original exists in the park.
The problem with the Moon Trees being given away is that no one kept a record of where the trees were planted. NASA has created a list of known trees (living and dead), but the list is missing many trees.
After taking a couple of pictures of the tree and the plaque marking the trees importance I headed back to the visitor’s center.
“I found some information that you might be interested in,” the lady spoke excitedly as I returned to the air conditioned building. While I was exploring the gardens, she had looked through a book about the history of the park.
“On Arbor Day in 1976, the Gardens received the Sycamore,” she shared. “But that’s not the most interesting part about the tree. The ceremony for the tree’s planting involved a sycamore that was not the Moon Tree.”
I questioned this piece of information because it was new to me. Due to the tree having been in space, there was a fear of vandalism or even theft so at the ceremony a “normal” Sycamore was planted. The real Moon Tree was kept in the protection of a greenhouse until the excitement of having it died down – the two trees were quickly and quietly exchanged.
I thanked her for her time as she thanked me for bringing this piece of the Garden’s history to her attention. Before leaving she informed me that this was one of six presented to the state of North Carolina that year, which is four more than listed on NASA’s site. The only other North Carolina Moon Tree on their site is at The Cradle of Forestry at the Pisgah National Forest.