It was 1971 when astronaut Stuart Roosa traveled to the moon on Apollo XIV, carrying with him hundreds of tree seeds. Roosa, a former Forest Service member, figured that he and NASA would help plant the seeds across the country when he returned, scattering little pieces of “the moon” all over the U.S. to pay tribute to the space exploration program.
The first of these “moon trees” was planted in Philadelphia — right in Washington Square Park, practically in the shadow of Independence Hall — to celebrate the United States bicentennial in 1975. It was a sycamore, and it was planted just a stone’s throw from Walnut Street. So we decided to check in on the tree as part of our “Whatever Happened With?” series that aims to follow up on stories that fell out of the headlines.
And the tree does still remain in Washington Square Park today, as you can see. It’s a small, skinny thing that’s no taller than eight or so feet standing in the background of its stone marker.
So why’s it so… puny? Well, this being Philly, the moon tree didn’t work quite right following its initial fanfare in the mid-1970s.
After the planting of Philadelphia’s moon tree, these things started popping up all over the country. There are now 77 moon trees around the world, 75 of which are in the United States and two in Brazil. Here in the U.S., moon trees were planted in cities from New Orleans to D.C. to Albuquerque through the mid-70s. (Here in Pennsylvania, there are moon trees in six places other than Philly: Dillsburg, Ebensburg, Hollidaysburg, King of Prussia, Newtown/Langhorne and Topton.)
And then they started dying.
Adam Duncan, a park ranger at with the National Park Service at Independence National Historical Park, said the National Park Service took over Washington Square Park in 2005 from the City of Philadelphia and, by that time, the tree was “badly diseased” and there was little horticulturists could do to save it. So they replaced it. Sort of.
In 2011, the National Park Service worked with researchers from University of Pennsylvania’s Morris Arboretum to use clippings from the tree, rooted them and created a “clone” of the tree to be replanted in the park. It worked, a sapling grew, and it was planted in the same spot where the original moon tree was placed in 1975.
That fall of 2011 now more than five years ago, Colonel Christopher Roosa — the son of the late astronaut Stuart Roosa — made an appearance in Philadelphia along with park superintendent Cynthia MacLeod and Anthony S. Aiello, the director of Horticulture and curator at Morris Arboretum. They planted the clone right back in the northeast corner of Washington Square Park.
So what you’re seeing today isn’t the actual moon tree. It’s a 5-year-old clone of the OG moon tree, and Duncan said this one (even though it looks quite… tiny) is still going strong and is cared for by park service landscape architects, gardeners and grounds crew members who perform routine check-ups on the flora throughout Independence National Historical Park.
The marker in front of the moon tree curiously doesn’t mention that it’s a clone. It reads: “Sycamore planted May 6, 1975 from seed carried to the moon by astronaut Stuart A. Roosa on Apollo XIV, February 1971.”
Maybe one day they’ll get around to indicating the moon tree isn’t exactly the same moon tree. They’re more focused on keeping it and the rest of the vegetation in the park alive.
“Theres a huge process,” Duncan said, “that goes on behind the scenes.”