Jim Scotti keeps two seeds in his office.
They’re brown, spiked and big, about the size of a golf ball. They come from the Bicentennial Moon Tree.
The tree doesn’t look like much in its winter state — just a light brown mess of living and dead branches with a few of those spiked seeds dangling from its limbs.
The tree is inconspicuous, tucked between Flandrau Planetarium and the Kuiper Space Science Building on the University of Arizona Mall near North Cherry Avenue, with only a small plaque to denote its importance. But it has taken a journey unlike any other tree on campus.
It has been to the moon.
Well, kind of. The tree grew from a seed that went on NASA’S Apollo 14 mission, and it really just orbited the moon.
“Close enough,” Scotti said. “It got closer to the moon than I did.”
Scotti, a senior research specialist in the UA’s Lunar and Planetary Lab, sees himself as a guardian of the tree.
Scotti wanted to be an astronaut when he was a kid, and he’s protective of this connection to a space mission.
“I always feel like I want to keep an eye on it, like an old friend, you know,”
But Scotti’s old friend is struggling, according to Barry Pryor, a UA professor of plant sciences.
“What is certain is that the tree is not doing really well,” Pryor said.
The American sycamore, or Platanus occidentalis, is native to the East, where rain is far more abundant. In Arizona, the sycamore is a riparian species, meaning it likes to grow near water.
Pryor said the tree needs more water, mulch and preferably a nice lawn.
“It’s one of those trees where it’s probably not in an optimal location, and that’s probably the biggest problem with that tree,” Pryor said.
But to its caretakers at the UA, it’s just another sycamore on campus.
“We have different categories of maintenance,” said Woody Remencus, a landscape manager with UA facilities management. “The moon tree that you’re talking about doesn’t get any special attention.”
When the tree was planted on April 30, 1976, more thought was given to its historical significance than to its ideal environment.
“The Lunar and Planetary Lab very early on was called upon to help our country go to the moon,” said Dolores Hill, a senior research specialist in the Lunar and Planetary Lab. “So it’s very appropriate that we have a moon tree right next to our building.”
Tucson has a close connection with space. Scientists at the UA contributed to the Ranger and Apollo missions in the ’60s, UA students have gone on to become astronauts, and most recently, the UA has managed a NASA space mission to Mars.
“It’s a nice monument to the various kinds of things that the university has contributed to the space program,” Scotti said.
For the scientists, it’s also a connection to the era of space exploration.
“It represents a piece of the Apollo era,” Hill said. “We grew up as kids hearing about this mission, and I’m not kidding, it really inspired so many scientists to go into science because it permeated everything.”
Alan Shepard, the first man in space, commanded the Apollo 14 on his second mission in 1971.
One of the astronauts on the mission, Stuart Roosa, decided to take about 500 seeds on the mission. They were seeds for pine trees, Douglas firs, redwoods, sweet gums, and, of course, sycamores.
“I’m not sure how big the bag was,” Scotti said. “Most of the astronauts had what they called personal-preference kits, and they could take mementos with them: maybe your wife’s wedding ring or things like that. There was limited space, and weight that they could occupy with that, and Roosa still chose to use some of that weight and space for seeds.”
Eventually, those seeds made it back down to Earth and were dispersed throughout the United States, and even to Brazil. There were 73 moon trees planted in the United States, including one in front of the White House. However, that one and 14 others have died. There are two in Arizona; one at the UA and one in Flagstaff.
“When we look at this tree, it brings back all these wonderful memories of what it took for our country to get to the moon,” Hill said. “It’s like preserving a little bit of history.”
While the UA campus is a great place for space scientists, it’s not so great for the tree. It’s hard to give a proper diagnosis of a tree when it’s not in bloom, but Pryor was able to see that the tree had severe die-back a few years ago.
Die-back is a term used in plant science for when a tree branch dies from the tip back toward the trunk.
“The main branches all died, and what caused that, that’s hard to say. It may have been water stress during a particular summer,” Pryor said.
Remencus said sycamores typically don’t do well in the Arizona heat.
“Late summer, the leaf quality really starts to wane,” he said.
New branches have sprouted, with some difficulty, and the tree is still producing seeds and fruit. But the dead limbs have become a home to some unwelcome visitors — carpenter bees. The bees have drilled hundreds of holes into the dead limbs.
“Go there in the afternoon and you’re going to see big black carpenter bees moving in and out of that tree. It’s like an apartment building,” Pryor said.
The bees make their nests and bring in pollen to feed their larvae, which alone doesn’t do too much damage. The bigger problem is that when insects bore holes into a tree, they create an opening for wood-decaying fungi.
The tree has a couple of conks — little shelves of fungi that form on the tree — but it’s hard to tell if they’re doing any damage.
“It needs to have a very good, careful pruning,” Pryor said. “You should never leave dead wood on a tree if they’re in a horticultural setting. It’s an attraction for pests and disease.”
Sycamores typically live for more than 200 years, but this one has been alive for 40. Without proper care, it may only have five years left.
“I’d hate to see it cease to exist, fall over, or whatever might happen to it,” Scotti said.
While it is still standing now, the tree can be easy to miss.
“Unless they actually go up and read the sign, it’s just a tree,” Hill said.
But it’s much more than that to many people.
“It allows the possibility to be inspired a little bit by its journey,” Scotti said.