Its roots stem far away from Earth.
And Alan Long, a UF emeritus professor from the school of forest resources and conservation, may be one of the only people to know about it.
It’s UF’s moon tree. Every eight to 10 years, the tree’s story seems to be rediscovered, Long said.
UF’s moon tree is a sycamore and is currently over 70 feet tall, Long said. But the tree didn’t literally go to the moon. The seeds were brought in a capsule by astronaut Stuart Roosa and orbited around the moon, according to NASA archives.
The seed of UF’s moon tree was one among 400 to 500 brought to outer space in 1971 during the Apollo 14 mission. Following up celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, here’s a look into the special connection between UF’s campus and space exploration.
Rocket science meets plant science
It all started when Chief of the U.S. Forest Service Ed Cliff asked Roosa to bring seeds up to space.
According to NASA archives, Stan Krugman of the Forest Service was put in charge of the project. Krugman chose from five different types of trees: Loblolly Pine, Sycamore, Sweetgum, Redwood and Douglas Fir.
When the seeds returned to Earth, Krugman sent them to Forest Service research stations in Gulfport, Mississippi and Placerville, California to see if the seeds would sprout. After a few years, around 420 to 450 seedlings grew, according to NASA archives.
In 1976, more than 100 seedlings were planted throughout the United States as part of the nation’s bicentennial celebration. One happened to be planted at UF.
However, according to NASA archives, UF was supposed to have three moon trees — two loblolly pines and one sycamore. Unfortunately, only the sycamore stood strong, as the two loblolly pines died early on.
More space on campus?
The campus planning tree assembly committee decided where forestry professors would plant the seedlings.
Long came to UF in 1986, 10 years after the tree was planted. He didn’t find out about the tree until four or five years later when a professor he was teaching a tree identification class with mentioned it to him. By that time, the tree was big enough so it couldn’t be hurt, he said.
The tree, located at the corner of Museum Road and McCarty Drive, doesn’t look any different than a normal tree, he said. There hasn’t been any evidence proving something happened to the seeds to make them different than other trees.
The moon tree is, however, a great example of a sycamore tree, he said. It’s good to have for tree identification quizzes.
“I told [my students] about it, so there’s a lot of students over the last 25 to 30 years that’ll learn about its history,” Long said.
Long doesn’t know if the professors who took over his class mention the moon tree.
He hopes the story doesn’t get lost in history. Whenever he walks by the tree, he remembers how special it is, and he’s enjoyed keeping track of the tree throughout the years.
“I can’t say it was awe-inspiring, but it’s cool to see a tree that’s gone to the moon and back,” Long said.
However, not everyone knew about the tree like Long.
Allison Vitt, spokesperson for UF’s Office of Sustainability, didn’t know about the moon tree until about two weeks ago when she saw it in a Twitter post. Vitt has been at UF since 2003.
Vitt said she can’t imagine how many times she’s probably passed by the tree since she’s been here.
“It makes me all the more curious about other untold stories and unique features hiding in plain sight throughout the university’s landscape and buildings,” she said.
Vitt thinks people share a fascination with space travel since few ever get to experience it. And here at UF, there’s a little piece for all who come.
“The moon tree is essentially a living monument right here on campus that connects us with the wonder and mystery of space,” she said.