Researchers Save Albino Redwood

ENVIRONMENT

For decades, a redwood tree has grown in Cotati, California. Mixed among its normal green needles are ghostly patches of yellowish white. It was little noticed by most people—until officials announced that the tree had to be chopped down. Now arborists, researchers, and historians have banded together to save it. (National Geographic News)

Use our resources to better understand albino redwoods.

When is a redwood neither red nor wood? When they are needles of an albino redwood, which lacks most plants' characteristic chlorophyll-green hue—the wood is still reddish. Photograph by Cole Shatto, courtesy Wikimedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

When is a redwood neither red nor wood? When it’s the needles of an albino redwood, which lacks most plants’ characteristic chlorophyll-green hue—although the wood is still reddish.
Photograph by Cole Shatto, courtesy Wikimedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Discussion Ideas

  • Albinism is usually defined as a lack of pigment, or coloration. Many animals, from snakes to crabs to alligators, are albinos. A lack of pigment in plants, such as the albino redwoods, is very rare. Why do you think albinism is much, much more unusual in plants than animals?
    • Most plants rely on chlorophyll, a green pigment, for photosynthesis, the awesome process by which plants convert light energy into chemical energy (“food”). The botanist quoted in the Nat Geo News article explains it: “‘Albinism in plants is strange because no chlorophyll means no photosynthesis, which means no life.’ . . A plant that completely lacks chlorophyll usually can’t survive.”
  • Read about the albino redwood in Nat Geo News, and compare it with the albino redwoods in our own article. The tree in the Nat Geo News article looks much bigger, stronger, and healthier than the weak shrubs in our article. Why?
    • The redwood tree in the Nat Geo News article is a chimera, “combining both normal tissue and albino tissues in the same independent tree.” The tree has healthy green needles as well as pale, yellowish albino ones. The albino redwoods in our article are genuine albinos—spindly specimens that “just eke out a living,” according to one botanist quoted in both articles.
  • Some botanists and park rangers call albino redwoods “vampire trees.” Why?
    • Albino redwoods are parasites, depending entirely on a nearby “parent” tree for nutrients. “The albino tree is attached to the parent tree at the roots,” our article says. “It gains all its nutrients from the parent tree, even though the parent tree uses most nutrients itself.” (Getting fewer nutrients is why albino redwoods are smaller and weaker than the towering parent trees.)

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