Along the Way: Coudersport’s Moon Tree

Coudersport’s Moon Tree

I stepped out into the heat and humidity of the July afternoon and scanned the grounds of the Coudersport Area Recreational Park. Only a handful of people dared the afternoon heat and those people quickly sought shade.

I had arrived at the park in search of one of Pennsylvania’s Moon Trees, one that had only recently been rediscovered. Though it briefly made headlines in 2010 and 2011, the tree had failed to be placed on NASA’s webpage listing of known Moon Trees. In fact, after the briefest of mentions in regional papers, the Moon Tree went back to living its obscure life.

I walked over to a nearby tree – it was a sycamore – and scanned the tree, but there wasn’t a plaque nearby to recognize the historic importance of the tree, so I thought I had the wrong one. The articles I had read stated a plaque had been placed at the base of the Moon Tree so visitors knew of its importance. Not sure if this was or was not the Moon Tree given to Potter County, I decided to make sure there was no other possible trees that could be the lost Moon Tree. Trying to stay in the shade of the tall pines that lined the Allegheny River, I walked the length of the park but did not discover any other sycamores.

“I think that is your tree over there,” mom spoke as I returned to the vehicle. “I found a couple pictures and they appear to be the same one.” I glanced at the pictures she found and she was right – the tree I had first glanced at appeared to be the one I was searching for.

I walked back over to the tree and realized that I was looking at a tree most residents probably did not know existed in their own park. It was a tree I did not know existed until a couple days earlier. While doing research on Pennsylvania’s Moon Trees, I stumbled upon a newspaper article about the replanting of Dillsburg’s Moon Tree in the May 4, 1983 edition of The Gettysburg Times. Near the end of the brief article there is a mention that only four Moon Trees had ever been given to Pennsylvania. While this fact is wrong, it was the list of counties after the mention that caught my attention: Philadelphia, York, Bucks and Potter Counties.

After looking at NASA’s list of Moon Trees, there was no mention of a Moon Tree in Potter County. One of the lost children of the Apollo XIV program was living a quiet, almost completely forgotten, life in northern Pennsylvania. Known as “Moon Trees” “Bicentennial Moon Trees” or “Bicentennial Trees,” Moon Trees 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. The seeds were taken to National Forest Service stations in Gulfport, Mississippi and Placerville, California, where almost all of the seed sprouted – all of Pennsylvania’s Moon Trees came from the Gulfport Station.

The problem with the Moon Trees being given away is no one kept a record of where the trees were planted. It would not be until 1996 NASA began tracking down the trees and have created a list of known trees – living and dead – but the list is missing many trees.

Potter County’s Moon Tree was presented to the community on Arbor Day – April 30, 1976 – and like other communities receiving a Moon Tree, there was a grand ceremony planned for the event. The plans to plant the sapling near the courthouse that day, were changed that morning due to the weather being too cold. The sycamore never took its rightful place on the courthouse grounds, but instead it was turned over to Carol Patterson, who had a tree nursery in nearby Colesburg. Patterson revived the tree from near death, keeping it a greenhouse until it was healthy enough to plant. With no ceremony, the tree was planted at the Coudersport Area Recreational Park, where it continued to grow unnoticed and forgotten about. Note: I’m not exactly sure when the Moon Tree was planted at the Coudersport Area Recreation Park. An article from The Endeavor News states it had been there for more than three decades, which would mean it was planted in the late 1970s.

It was not until 2010 the Moon Tree be “rediscovered” and confirmed it was one of Apollo XIV’s missing children. On April 29, 2011 – Arbor Day – the tree was rededicated. There were plans to place a plaque near the base of the tree, but when I visited, if there was a plaque it was buried under the mulch.

Examining the sycamore, I immediately noticed a number of differences between it and the other sycamores I had encountered. This one did not have the grand stature the others have, and is split near its base. It’s limbs are gnarled and twisted. The question is “what happened to cause this tree to grow differently than the others?” First the sycamore is a little farther north than its normal range. Facing the cold, snowy winters of Potter County could have an effect on it. Second, it was at the edge of death before being brought back to life. These two factors had to have an affect on the tree and its growth.

The most important thing is: it survived. I left the Moon Tree to continue its peaceful existence, mostly forgotten and ignored, in a park that countless people from the community use everyday without knowing they are passing a tree whose journey to the park, took it into the reaches of space.

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