Asheville’s Moon Tree

The Moon Tree (a Sycamore) located in Asheville’s Botanical Gardens

I am fascinated by Moon Trees.

This fascination was what brought me to the Botanical Gardens in Asheville. The parking lot was filling quickly as I found a spot 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 through the guide of plants located 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.

I was preparing to explore the gardens when the groundskeeper entered the building and he gave me directions to the where the Moon Tree stood. Had I gone exploring by myself, I would have missed the sycamore – it was far enough off the trail I would have walked by it.

Thanking them for the information, I followed the trail that paralleled Reed Creek. A short walk later, I arrived at Sycamore Meadow and at the far side of the small field, I could see the tree I wanted. As I approached, I could see the plaque attached to the rock at the base of the tree. Note: There is nothing along the trail to mark the field as Sycamore Meadow – the name comes from the map the gardens posted online.

Moon Trees are trees which grew from the five hundred seeds taken into space on the Apollo 14 mission by Stuart Roosa, the pilot of 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 it.

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 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. There is a line of thought that suggests the Moon Trees may have been nothing more than a publicity stunt to help celebrate the United States’ Bicentennial.

Upon return, the seeds were taken to National Forest Service stations in Gulfport, Mississippi and Placerville, California. The seeds were planted and most of the seeds sprouted. In 1976 the trees were given away as a part of the United States’ Bicentennial celebration. The first of the Moon Trees was planted at Washington Square, Philadelphia in May 1975. Note: This tree no longer exists.

The problem with the Bicentennial Moon Trees being given away was no one kept a record of where the trees were planted. NASA has created a list of known trees – both 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 continued looking for information about the Moon Tree located in the Gardens.

“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 remained 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.

Knowing I had more research to do and many more Moon Trees to visit, I set out to continue my journey.

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