Years After Apollo 14, Moon Pines Continue to Travel Around the World

A moon pine grafted an original moon tree on the Harrison Experimental Forest was planted at Rice University this February. Photo courtesy of Rice University.
A moon pine grafted from an original moon tree grown on the Harrison Experimental Forest was planted at Rice University this February. Photo courtesy of Rice University.

Apollo 14 landed on the moon in 1971, the third manned mission to land on Earth’s only natural satellite. The spacecraft carried an unusual cargo – tree seeds. Astronaut Stuart Roosa — previously a smoke jumper for the U.S. Forest Service — carried several hundred seeds from loblolly pine and four other tree species with him on the expedition. After the astronauts returned, some of the loblolly pine seeds were donated to the U.S. Forest Service, where technician Billy Mauldin grew and germinated them at the Forest Service Southern Institute of Forest Genetics.

“There are seven original moon pines on the Harrison Experimental Forest in Mississippi,” says Forest Service research geneticist Dana Nelson. “Years ago, Larry Lott, a forestry technician on the Harrison, began grafting these trees.” The method involves taking a cutting from the parent tree and rooting it to create a genetic replica of the parent.

Grafting continues to this day, and moon trees have been planted around the world. Stuart Roosa’s daughter, Rosemary Roosa, has been influential in helping universities and other organizations obtain moon tree seedlings from the Forest Service.

Two moon trees from the Harrison Experimental Forest have been planted within the past few months. In December, 2015, Roosa and Nelson sent a moon tree to the arboretum of the French Astronomical Society. In February, 2016, a moon tree was sent to Rice University, in Texas. The university planted the tree near the ceremonial campus entrance, with the hope that it will inspire its students and visitors to study and support nature both close by and far away.

The moon trees provide opportunities to educate people about space exploration as well as natural resources. “Loblolly pine was the first pine species in the U.S. to have over a billion seedlings grown and planted in a year,” says Nelson. “It was the first pine species to have specific disease resistance genes identified, and it was the first pine species to have its genome sequenced.” Loblolly pine is also the most important commercial forest tree in the Southeast, as well as in other parts of the world.

The seven original moon trees on the Harrison Experimental Forest are now more than 40 years old. There were once more moon trees, but some succumbed to disease, while others were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. However, the grafted moon trees ensure that the remaining trees will live on, inspiring a new generation while preserving the genetic legacy of the seeds that traveled to the moon and back.

For more information, email Dana Nelson at dananelson@fs.fed.us

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