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Arkansas grows ‘moon trees’

  • loblolly pine cones.jpg

    Cones from the Loblolly pine tree. Seeds from this type of tree were sent to space aboard the Apollo 14 mission; they've been growing in Arkansas and elsewhere ever since. (Wikipedia)

  • apollo14 astronauts.jpg

     (NASA)

If a loblolly pine tree next to the Old Confederate Courthouse seems a little out-of-this-world, it's because it grew from seeds that were passengers on the Apollo 14 mission in January 1971.

Commonly referred to as the moon tree, the loblolly pine seeds were part of an experiment.

Before becoming an astronaut and command-module pilot for Apollo 14, Stuart Roosa worked for the U.S. Forestry Service as a smoke jumper -- a firefighter who parachutes into remote areas to fight fires.

Roosa had been asked to carry close to 500 seeds from five tree species on the 1971 mission, which he did in his personal kit.

"They did the trees as a science experiment," said Dr. David Williams with NASA's National Space Science Data Center.

Williams has been researching and following the moon trees for NASA.

As Apollo 14 re-entered Earth's atmosphere, the container carrying the seeds opened and the seeds mixed together.

Officials believed the seeds wouldn't be any good but sent them off to find out if they could still be grown. Close to 450 seedlings came from the out-of-this-world seeds.

"The trees were planted next to similar trees to see if there were any differences between them (space seed trees and the others) and none were found," Williams said.

Williams became interested in the moon trees after receiving an email from an elementary school teacher.

"They were doing a project on trees and saw a sign in a Girl Scout camp with a moon tree. They thought it was interesting and started checking the moon trees out," Williams said.

"I started researching in 1996. I started putting a Webpage together because I thought it was cool. It's been a lot of fun."

NASA officials gave the space tree seedlings out to Congressional leaders and state forestry services to be planted across the country.

Since their historic space trip, close to 80 moon trees live today. There are even 28 second generation moon trees across the nation.

Arkansas received four moon trees, but only two have survived: the one in Historic Washington State Park and one outside Sebastian County Courthouse in Fort Smith.

Both moon trees were planted March 15, 1976, which was also Arbor Day.

"The tree's site was selected because this was the site of the Confederate capital in Arkansas," said Billy Nations with the historic state park.

Historic Washington State Park is home to four other historic trees on the state's historic tree registry:

-- Royston Magnolia (a southern magnolia) tree, planted in 1835 by prominent attorney Grandison Royston who placed it next to his law office;

--Champion Black Walnut tree planted by the 1914 Washington public school;

-- Abraham Block pecan tree, recognized for its association with Abraham Block, the first permanent Jewish settler (and prominent merchant for the town) to the state in 1823 (at Conway and Jay streets);

-- the Mail Carrier Smith Catalpa tree, named after John H. Smith who, at 14-years-old, carried the mail 180 miles on horseback from Washington, Ark., to Natchitoches, La. The roundtrip took 10 days, and he made two trips each month. On his mail route, he stopped at a catalpa tree hedge growing along the Red River. He filled his pocket with the winged seed from this tree and when he got to Washington, he scatered the seeds over the land where the 1836 courthouse was built. It is estimated the tree is more than 178 years old.

Though Historic Washington State Park is known for its place in Arkansas' Civil War history, cheery jonquils and Jonquil Festival, Nations is glad the park can boast about one more thing.

"I think the history we interpret here is the main draw for visitors, but once they get here and see the trees, it's an added bonus," Nations said.