A lot of seeds just fall from trees, land and take root. For other seeds, the trip is longer. When Apollo 14 ventured to the moon in 1971, hundreds of tree seeds were among the cargo. After the spacecraft returned to Earth, the U.S. Forest Service germinated the seeds. The resulting “moon trees” found homes across the U.S. and beyond, including in Boise.
A loblolly pine, whose seed orbited the moon 34 times, now grows on the grounds at Lowell Elementary School in the North End. It stands along 28th Street, near a chain-link fence, just south of the 100-year-old school building. The pine is Idaho’s sole living moon tree.
Today the tree is struggling, said Pattie Hennequin, whose third-grader attends Lowell and who is leading the efforts to keep the tree alive. The tree has an insect infestation and 45 years of compacted soil. The pine, a native of the much wetter Southeastern U.S., is also suffering from dehydration.
But people have come forward to help. Arborists at Idaho Tree Preservation, a Boise company, are donating their expertise and equipment in hopes of addressing the insects and other problems. The North End Neighborhood Association has given a grant to help pay for the 275 gallons of water the tree needs each week. Students and teachers at Lowell are learning about the tree and looking for ways to get involved. Fourth-graders will make a plaque for the tree.
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Hennequin was born in 1976, just a year before the Lowell space tree was planted.
“The tree has a special place in our history. It’s a fascinating thing to help teach kids about space exploration and to tie in a little Idaho history,” said Hennequin.
Alana Dunn, curator at the Eagle Historical Museum, is also a fan of the tree. She’s grown so fond of it that she refers to the pine as “he” as though it’s an old friend. It was she who first read about the moon tree program on the Facebook page Atlas Obscura, a compendium of odd news and curiosities, and started wondering whether there were any in Idaho. She learned about the tree at Lowell. She alerted the school and eventually heard back from longtime Lowell volunteer Hennequin, who took on the tree-saving crusade.
“The tree matters for our entire state,” said Dunn. “It affects the entire community, whether you’re in Eagle, Nampa or way up in Lewiston.”
According to the National Space Science Data Center, between 400 and 500 seeds went into space in the care of astronaut Stuart Roosa, a former Forest Service smoke jumper. Each astronaut was allowed to carry a small number of personal items on the trip. The chief of the Forest Service had asked Roosa to carry the seeds. Once the seeds were back, scientists germinated them — in part to explore the effects of zero gravity. The majority of seeds germinated. Many cities, schools, churches and other organizations received the space saplings and planted them between 1976 and 1977 to mark the nation’s Bicentennial.
Lowell Elementary was among the tree recipients because then-Gov. John Evans’ son was a student there. A sycamore grown from a moon seed grew on the campus of University of Idaho, but died between 2004-2005.
One curious fact: So many entities wanted trees that according to NASA’s Science News website, the Forest Service grew additional seedlings by taking cuttings from the original trees. No one kept systematic records. The whereabouts of many of the moon trees is today unknown. Many of the known trees have died, making Idaho’s all the more valuable.
There was even some confusion about which tree on the Lowell campus was the moon tree, said Principal Nick Smith. A plaque has hung in a school trophy case since the tree was planted. It shows a picture of a pine at Lowell, but not a loblolly, the variety listed for Lowell on the National Space Sciene Data Center website.
“We had to gather cones from both trees to figure out which one was the loblolly,” said Smith.