Trees on the Moon

Are there actually trees on the Moon? Not really…but there are two cases when we can find “Moon trees” on Earth. In my opinion, as “Moon trees”, firstly we can call trees grown from 500 seeds taken into orbit around the Moon by Stuart Roosa during the Apollo 14 mission in 1971. Secondy, trees that grow in the Craters of the Moon in Idaho, USA. This post is about the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, as some time ago, I had a big pleasure to visit this “weird and scenic landscape peculiar to itself”. Continue reading…

Craters of the Moon – beginnings

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is a U.S. National Monument and national preserve in the Snake River Plain in central Idaho. In 1924, responding to growing public concern, President Calvin Coolidge used the 1906 Antiquities Act to proclaim Craters of the Moon National Monument, preserving “a weird and scenic landscape, peculiar to itself”.

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Many lava flows exist on Earth’s actual moon, but astronomers confirmed that most lunar craters resulted from meteorite impacts, not volcanism. The craters of Craters of the Moon, however, are definitely of volcanic origin.

But where is the volcano?

Craters of the Moon
Photo: Craters of the Moon. Author: Rafał Chudy

In fact, these vast volumes of lava issued not from one volcano but from a series of deep fissures – known collectively as the Great Rift – that cross the Snake River Plain. Beginning 15 000 years ago lava welled up from the Great Rift to produce this vast ocean of rock. The most recent eruption occured a mere 2000 years ago, and geologists believe that future events are likely.

Spatter cones

The Spatter Cones are excellent examples of these miniature volcanos (photo below).

spatter cones in the Craters of the Moon
Spatter Cones. Photo: Rafał Chudy

Erupting with Life

While seemingly barren, the park’s lava fields and arid sagebrush areas sustain a surprising diversity of plants and animal life. In the Craters of the Moon, many plants are adapted to resist losing moisture from the heat and wind. Some have small leaves that minimize water loss. Many grow in crevices that give them shade and wind protection and collect precious moisture. Islands of vegetation – called kipukas – that are surrounded by younger lava flows preserve important areas of the sagebrush steppe plant-and-animal community.

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These provide relatively undistrurbed havens for native plants and animals, and also can show scientists what the native vegetation was like – before livestock grazing and the invasion by non-native plants like cheat grass- and how native plant communities might now be restored.

Kipukas in the Craters of the Moon
Kipukas. Author: Rafał Chudy

Limber pine (Pinus flexilis)

The most common pine that grows in the Craters of the Moon is Pinus flexilis. This pine occurs in the mountains of the Western United States, Mexico, and Canada. It is also called Rocky Mountain white pine and can reach very old age. One of the world’s oldest living Limber Pine trees grows on the banks of the upper North Saskatchewan River at Whirlpool Point in Alberta. In 1986 a core sample 10 cm was retrieved by two researchers who counted 400 rings. Extrapolating this data gives an age close to 3000 years.

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Why limber pine?

This pine is characterized by its flexible branches, what has been reflected in its Latin epithet “flexilis”. I have even checked that by myself, and I have to confirm that branches are very flexible, compared to other pines. See the movie below. You can observe here also short needles of P. flexilis as an adaptation to harsh living conditions (heat and wind).

Cones and needles

Pinus flexilis has relatively short needles, around 3–7 cm, which are grouped into five per fascicle. In limber pine, the cones are 6–12 centimeters long, the scales are not fragile. In favourable conditions, Pinus flexilis is a tree to 20-25 meters tall. However, on exposed treeline sites, mature trees are much smaller, reaching heights of only 5–10 meters (as you can see in the previous photos with Kipukas).

Pinus flexilis limber pine in the Craters of the Moon
Needles and cone of Pinus flexilis. Author: Rafał Chudy

The limber pine can survive heat, wind, and lack of rain better than other pines.

Squirell in Craters of the Moon
Squirell in Craters of the Moon. Author: Rafał Chudy

Its leaves have fewer microscopic holes, called stomates, through which air flows in and out. This means less moisture loss. The flexible branches give without breaking in wind and under weight of heavy snow.

P. flexilis, is an important source of food for several species, including red squirrels and Clark’s nutcrackers.

Tree Molds

When molten lava advances into a forest, trees are engulfed in a river of molten rock. The trees burn, releasing stored water as steam. The steam cools the lava enough to leave an impression of the burning wood.

Tree Mold Craters of the Moon
Tree Mold. Author: Rafał Chudy

Tree Molds may appear as vertical holes in the lava, or, if the tree fell on to the surface of a molten flow, a horizontal mold.

Main photo: There is still some activity in Craters of the Moon. Photo credit: Rafał Chudy

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