Grosvenor Estate Moon Tree in Bethesda, Maryland

Passers-by could be forgiven for overlooking the tall loblolly pine a few hundred feet south of Grosvenor Lane in Bethesda, Maryland. After all, the sole indication that it’s anything more than a stately conifer is a worn wooden plaque at the base marked only with the number “12.” As a matter of fact, this specimen is one of the “moon trees” grown from seeds carried on Apollo 14, deposited here among care homes and condominiums by the unexpected history of the location where it stands. 

Long before this area was a residential suburb, it was Maryland farmland – farmland which abruptly became prime real estate when a streetcar track connected it to the District of Columbia around the turn of the century. The streetcar track right-of-way survives today as the Bethesda Trolley Trail, running just 500 feet west of the moon tree. In 1913, Gilbert and Elsie Grosvenor purchased over a hundred acres between the streetcar line and Rockville Pike, christening the estate “Wild Acres” and making it their summer home. The Grosvenors were significant figures: Gilbert Grosvenor was the first full-time editor of National Geographic magazine and later president of the National Geographic Society, while Elsie Bell Grosvenor was the daughter of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, heavily involved in the National Geographic Society, and an active proponent of women’s suffrage. In 1928, the Grosvenors built a Tudor Revival mansion which still stands on the site to be their year-round home. 

After the deaths of Gilbert and Elsie Grosvenor in the 1960s, the Grosvenor family chose to sell the estate, but who would buy an aging mansion whose grounds were now encroached on by Interstate 270 and the new Capital Beltway? The surprising purchaser was the nascent Renewable Natural Resources Foundation (RNRF), a coalition of organizations committed to conservation and resource management. One of the member organizations of the RNRF, the Society of American Foresters, received a massive $500,000 bequest (more than $3.5 million today) which allowed them to purchase the old Grosvenor mansion in 1973 and renovate it into a splendid headquarters office. The SAF decorated the mansion with wood paneling, planted the grounds with various trees relevant to forestry, and renamed it the Gifford Pinchot Forestry Building after their founder. It was a transformation that one imagines Gilbert Grosvenor, who helped draft the legislation to create the National Parks Service and provided funding to secure the preservation of the Giant Forest, would have approved of. 

At the same time as the SAF was searching for its new home, another organization founded by Gifford Pinchot was making a brief foray into space. When Colonel Stuart Roosa, a former US Forest Service smoke jumper, was selected as Command Module Pilot for Apollo 14, his old colleagues contacted him about the possibility of carrying seeds into space. The fruit of this effort was a joint NASA/USFS project which saw Colonel Roosa carry hundreds of seeds from five different tree species into lunar orbit in his personal kit. After returning to Earth, the seeds were germinated at Forest Service stations and distributed as gifts to various institutions, municipalities, forestry organizations, and dignitaries in 1975 and 1976. On September 30th, 1975, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the SAF, one of these saplings was planted at the dedication of the Gifford Pinchot Forestry Building.

In the decades since, the sapling matured into a sizable tree and was at some point marked stop number 12 on a self-guided tour of the Pinchot Building grounds. The population of Montgomery County grew as well, almost doubling between 1975 and 2020. In the 2010s, development again encroached on what remained of Wild Acres, with townhouses and an assisted living facility replacing tracts of woods surrounding the old mansion. In 2020, the SAF moved to downtown DC in search of more modern and convenient office space, and the Pinchot Building was sold to cancer nonprofit Hope Connections for Cancer Support and rechristened the W. Scott Funger House. Today, the moon tree remains as one of the few remnants of the site’s century as a center of conservation and forestry. If it can survive the rapid development of Montgomery County, the moon tree may bear witness to many years to come – loblolly pines can live for up to three hundred years.

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