Creature Feature: Albino Redwood

December, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zombies haunt the redwood forests. These zombies are trees, albino redwoods to be exact, so named because instead of normal green needles, the albino redwood is a shocking white. Lacking chlorophyll, the green compound in leaves that plants use to turn sunlight into carbohydrates, these mutant redwoods should be dead—they cannot produce any food. But they are not. The ashen trees survive by feasting on their brethren... Okay, that’s kind of hyperbole. Scientifically speaking, the albino redwoods obtain sugars from neighboring trees through their root structures.

First documented in 1866, albino redwoods have been a chin-scratcher for scientists. For a long time, scientists have regarded the albino redwood as a parasite, but emerging research suggests that they may play a symbiotic relationship by filtering out heavy metals, such as cadmium, copper, lead, as well as other toxins, much like a liver would do in the body. The albino redwoods needles have faulty stomata—pores which the plant uses for transpiration—which causes the albino redwood to use far more water than an ordinary redwood. As a result, the albino redwoods are able to draw in and capture much more heavy metals. Their ability to draw in toxins have caused some to speculate that albino redwoods could help clean up contaminated areas.

While their green neighbors may reach heights of over 300 feet—the tallest redwood still standing is “Hyperion,” located in Redwood National Park, towering at 379.1 feet—albino redwoods top out below 60 feet. Albino redwoods will never be more than runts. One of the larger albino redwoods, known informally as the “Christmas tree,” tops out at just 30 feet.

Although they are rare—there are only 406 known albino redwoods—there are no special protections for albino redwoods. However, because they are so unique and interesting, there is a special emphasis to help protect individual trees. When a chimera redwood—a rare specimen that has DNA of both a normal green and albino redwood and exhibits both traits—planted in Sonoma County by a landscaper 45 years ago in a railroad right of way was threatened to be cut, the local community rallied around the tree until it was replanted in a nearby park.

Want to see an albino redwood? You’ll have to ask around because, like the tallest redwood trees, the precise location of these albinos is a secret for their safety. Heavy foot traffic can damage the roots and unthinking visitors may break off souvenirs.