The Mysterious World of Albino Redwood Trees

You may already be familiar with albinism in humans and other animals, but did you know there are albino plants, too?

Albino redwood needles

The most viable example of this phenomenon is the albino redwood. Due to a genetic mutation, these rare plants are unable to produce chlorophyll, leaving their needles white or pale yellow instead of the typical green.

A lack of chlorophyll production would typically mean an automatic death sentence for the vast majority of plants, but these "everwhites" have a special trick up their sleeve that can ensure their survival: parasitism.

As long as they've sprouted close enough to a healthy, non-albino redwood (usually their parent tree), they are able to graft their roots onto the healthier individual and absorb important photosynthesized nutrients.

On the surface, it sounds like these trees have a pretty sweet arrangement, but the truth is this freeloader strategy is not without its challenges. Even when they're feeding off the healthiest of trees, many albino redwoods are weak and malnourished, which is why so many of them look like dying Christmas trees:

Two men look at the growth of an albino redwood
Humboldt Redwoods State Park has a few albino redwoods. (Photo: Redwood Coast/flickr)

Unlocking the albino redwood's secrets

An even rarer variation of this genetic mutation is the chimeric albino redwood, which has foliage that includes healthy green tissues as well as weaker albino tissues.

What's remarkable about redwood chimeras is that they have two different sets of DNA, which is like having two different people living in one body. This kind of tree is so rare that out of the millions of acres of redwood forest in California, there are only 10 known chimera individuals.

Different redwood needles mixed together on the forest floor
Redwoods show nature in all its colors. (Photo: Redwood Coast/flickr)

In a 2014 National Geographic article profiling the fight to save one such chimeric specimen in Cotati, California, Zane Moore, then a Colorado State University botany student, wondered if the albinism might be an adaptive response to external environmental forces:

"Albinos tend to be near redwood transition zones, and every one we study looks to be stressed. So one idea is that albinism is an adaptation to cope with stress. We've seen an unusual number of very young albinos coming up, which may be because of the drought that California and the west is experiencing."

It turns out that Moore was onto something. Two years later, Moore — who is now a doctoral student at University of California, Davis — has found that the albino redwood's needles contain high levels of heavy metals like nickel and copper. The albino redwood appear to be sucking up the pollution from the soil and storing it, keeping it away from other, healthier redwoods.

"They are basically poisoning themselves," Moore told the Mercury News. "They are like a liver or kidney that is filtering toxins."

While the new findings don't provide an explanation for the redwoods' albinism, soaking up toxins from the soil would certainly be a potential stressor for those self-sacrificing trees.

Albino redwood in Humboldt
Albino redwoods may keep toxins out of the forest that allow other redwoods to thrive. (Photo: WolfmanSF/Wikimedia Commons)

Protecting the trees

A branch of an albino redwood
The locations of albino redwoods are kept secret to ensure their survival. (Photo: Kevin Bertolero/flickr)

Like many other rare and ancient trees, the exact locations of these albino and chimera redwoods are often shrouded in secrecy in an effort to ensure their continued survival, but if you're hoping to glimpse one of these ghostly trees, there are several spots to view them within California's Humboldt Redwoods and Henry Cowell Redwoods state parks.

Take a quick tour of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and learn more about these remarkable "phantoms of the forest" in the video below:

(Inset photo of needles: Cole Shatto/Wikimedia Commons)