Plaque at the base of the Fort Smith, Arkansas, Moon Tree. Credit: Jesse Berry / Creative Commons
They may look normal, but some of Earth’s trees traveled to the moon before they were even planted. Dubbed moon trees, some have since died, but others still sway in the breeze to this day, their real identities unbeknownst to the world.
During the heyday of moon romps, Stuart Roosa, a former U.S. Forest Service smokejumper, was selected for the Apollo 14 mission. Smokejumpers are self-sufficient firefighters who parachute into wildfires to help stave them — a hazardous and highly demanding role.
Not many space experiments had been done at this point, and scientists were curious if a seed that’s been in microgravity would grow the same way as a normal Earthly seed. When then-Forest Service chief Ed Cliff found out that a former comrade was chosen, he asked Roosa if he’d bring some seeds into space with him on the upcoming mission. As a tribute to the service, Roosa agreed.
The Forest Service selected hundreds of seeds of five different tree types: loblolly pine, sycamore, sweetgum, redwood, and Douglas fir. Meanwhile, control seeds were kept back on Earth. Roosa tucked the baby trees into his personal bag, and off he went. It was the third lunar landing mission, and along with him were NASA astronauts Alan B. Shepard and Edgar Mitchell, who collected nearly a hundred pounds of samples — the largest lunar surface payload ever. While in space, the seeds orbited the moon 34 times with Roosa as the command module pilot.
All was well until the seeds make it back to Earth. During the decontamination process, the canister holding them blew open, mixing them together. Scientists weren’t even sure if they would be able to germinate, but the experiment was shipped to Forest Service labs and salvaged. Nearly 450 survived, and some were planted with their controls, and others were given away in the mid-‘70s to state forestry organizations.
Credit: Forest History Society
A pine was planted at the White House and Philadelphia’s Independence Square, while other trees made it to Japan, Brazil, and Switzerland. At one point, you could purchase them through the now-defunct Historic Trees program, which kept descendants of famous trees growing as active relics. A non-profit called American Heritage Trees now offers sycamore moon trees for about $60 plus shipping.
With no tracking system in place, though, these moon trees expanded their family without any formal identification. Not all states got one due to the tree species’ climate preferences, but you can see a list of their locations here and here.