Botanic Notables: Albino Redwoods

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Botanic Notables: Albino Redwoods

April 20, 2012
02:38pm
Photo by: Stephen K Harper

If you wander long enough in California's redwood forests—long enough to believe that the color spectrum has been condensed into infinite shades of greens and browns—you might stumble on an anomalous patch of white. Little clouds of the forest floor, they lurk in the understory, affixed to the feet of redwoods. Scientists are fascinated by them. Some call them ghost trees, others compare them to vampires. Most will agree that albino redwoods are, at the very least, curious parasites. 

Albino redwoods have snow-white needles and an unusual life cycle. They are living redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) whose needles contain no chlorophyll, which means that they are white, not green, and they rely on a healthy tree to glean nutrients. A plant lacking chlorophyll can't convert sunlight to energy, and cannot survive on its own. And, of course, it will not be green. 

Albino redwoods are no different—the snow-white shrub-like anomalies remain attached to the base of a healthy parent, receiving nutrients for most of the year. They never get any taller than a standard Christmas tree, they will never live independently of the parent tree, and they appear to intermittently "disappear" when the parent tree cuts off nutrients in times of drought, and the needles turn brown. In the spring, these ghosts will reappear when they resume feeding.

Redwoods are famously adaptive, so it's not surprising to see unexpected behaviors, say scientists. Those mutations that persist are presumed to be advantageous, since redwoods are a species of tree that's marvelously equipped to recover from flood or fire. But what, then, of the redwood that sprouts without chlorophyll? There are an estimated 50 albino redwoods—a small number, to be sure, but large enough that they have aroused curiosity among scientists. What do they tell us about photosynthesis, about redwood trees, and about the forest ecosystem? While other plants develop albino mutations, redwoods are the only species that has adapted to survive the mutation. 

The place to find albino redwoods is the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, just outside Santa Cruz—but you might have to find them on your own. Scientists and docents are reluctant to divulge specific locations, out of concern that everyone will become equally entranced and try to take home a souvenir. The trees aren't hidden—you are permitted to discover them, but discovery is exactly what it will take. And perhaps it's better that way—what struck me about scientists' accounts of the albino redwoods is that everyone seems to have a first encounter story. Spend enough time in the forest, and you might too. 

KQED produced a short video segment about the albino redwoods.

redwood albino

Fernwood Campgrounds promotes their albino redwood. Photo credit: Fernwoodbigsur.com

Anna Laurent is a writer and photographer. Her work explores how we look at plants, and how those plants behave.