Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com's Historic section.
DRAPER — In a corner outside the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands building near Point of the Mountain stands a 48-year-old sycamore tree. Its thinning branches and protruding roots suggest a timid, ordinary past no different from any other tree.
But this tree has gone places only some of the boldest and most extraordinary among us have gone.
This is Utah’s last surviving “moon tree,” a tangible connection to the man’s voyages to the moon 50 years ago. It has been growing in Utah’s own backyard ever since 1976. Today, though, the old tree is threatened by disease.
While the Apollo missions were one giant leap for mankind, they also saw great strides for the plant kingdom. In 1971, 17 months after Apollo 11 returned from the Sea of Tranquility with the first bag of moon rocks, Apollo 14 blasted off for the Fra Mauro highlands carrying a jar of tree seeds.
Astronaut Stuart Roosa acted as the seeds’ courier. He carried them in his personal kit, which each astronaut was allotted. Roosa’s business with hauling several hundred sycamore, sweetgum, redwood, loblolly pine and Douglas-fir seeds into space had to do with the job he held as a U.S. Forest Service smokejumper before he became an astronaut, according to NASA.
An official in the forest service knew of Roosa’s connection to the department and asked him if he would take the seeds with him to the moon. The forest service wanted to observe the effects the flight had on the seeds, NASA wrote.
After orbiting the moon with Roosa, whose job was to man the command module while his crewmates explored the surface, the seeds were returned to Earth and planted to see if they would germinate. Almost all the seeds sprouted successfully, and soon the forest service had a small forest of stellar saplings.
So what do you do with the surplus trees? The agency gave them away. In honor of the country’s 200th birthday, many trees were gifted to state forestry departments across the country, NASA explained.
The State of Utah accepted two of these trees, a pair of sycamores. One was planted at the Utah State Capitol and the other at the state-run Lone Peak Nursery in Draper. From there, a lack of records suggests the trees grew with little public recognition.
The state Capitol’s moon tree stood guard near the Mormon Battalion Monument, Stephanie Angelides, curator for the State Capitol Preservation Board said. But the surprise 1999 tornado split the sycamore in half.
The tree at the Lone Peak Nursery grew under the care of the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. Today it stands in an exterior corner of the State Forestry Department’s Lone Peak office, 271 Bitterbrush Lane. The nursery is now a private operation, but the agency remains the tree's steward.
Jason Curry, spokesman for the Utah State Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said that when the building was expanded in the early 1990s, the architect took care not to disturb the tree, providing irrigation to protect it from its close proximity to the building.
Chris Bullock, who manages High Mountain Nursery, the private company that took over Lone Peak Nursery when state funds ran out, said that upon special request his nursery took cuttings of the tree and sold genetically matched clones to customers. These customers knew about the parent tree’s historic past, Bullock said.
Today, Utah’s last moon tree is suffering from disease and its mission could be coming to an end.
Curry said that the tree’s branch development has been affected by a common fungal disease called anthracnose. Utah State University’s extension office notes on its website the disease could pose a threat to a tree’s life if consecutive years of favorable conditions for the disease are not accompanied by preventive care.
Bullock is afraid that without more care, the tree may not last five or six years longer. He also believes the tree’s close proximity to the building is harmful. Curry said that proper measures to protect the tree were taken during renovations.
NASA also observed that disease and disaster have sealed the fate of many Moon Trees across the country. But for now, Utah still has roots in one of man’s greatest adventures.
Ryan Boyce is an amateur space enthusiast, who'll talk to anyone about space if they'll listen. Twitter: @rboyce13.