Albinism is rare in humans and animals, and it is rarer still in plants, where it manifests as the complete lack of chlorophyll. Because this green pigment is vital to the manufacture of food and thus the survival of plants, an albino plant typically die as seedlings.
There is an exception, however. Researchers have noticed several albino redwoods in California that have managed to survive till adulthood by latching on to the parent redwood and leaching off nutrients from the host tree.
Albino redwoods do not grow into tall majestic trees. Rather they survive as shrub-like vegetation at the base of the parent redwood tree. The roots of the albino redwood is entangled with those of the healthy plant, which enables them to obtain sugar through the connections between its roots. At some times of the year, albino redwoods have distinct white needles. During the winter, they have a good amount of brown foliage.
“The albino plant behaves a lot like a parasite, because it’s dependent on the parent plant for everything,” explains University of California plant physiology professor Jarmila Pittermann.
However, the relationship is not entirely parasitic.
New research have suggested that the albino redwood also helps the healthy redwood trees to survive by filtering out toxins from the soil. Albinos have defective stomata that causes them to lose more water through transpiration, forcing them to compensate by taking up more water through their roots. As a result they accumulate more metals in their bodies than normal trees do.
The research led by Zane Moore, a doctoral student at the University of California Davis, found high levels of toxic heavy metals, including nickel, copper and cadmium. These heavy metals were at least twice as high in the albino redwoods compared to healthy redwood trees.
“They are basically poisoning themselves,” he said. “They are like a liver or kidney that is filtering toxins.”
Albino redwoods were first documented in 1866, when one was found near San Rafael and taken to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, where researchers couldn’t figure out why its waxy leaves were white. Later investigation found that the plants, which grow out of healthy redwoods, are white because of a genetic mutation that leaves them without chlorophyll, the pigment that makes plants green.
It is believed that there are about 400 albino redwoods across California’s wilderness. Their locations are not advertised in order to prevent people from seeking them out and collecting souvenirs that would be harmful for the plant.
An albino redwood in Humboldt Redwoods State Park.