Stumbling upon white redwood trees is an almost mystical event. Growing on foggy slopes, these pale and fragile trees peer around the mammoth ruddy trunks of nearby normal trees, emerging from the shadows like frail and spindly forest spirits, dead but for the nutrients they poach from their pigmented hosts. These albinos occur so infrequently that many worry our intense human interest will lead to their disappearance, either from enthusiastic trophy-clipping or damaging holiday decorating. To find one of these forest ghosts is to become an automatic keeper of sacred knowledge and a steward of the rare.
An albino redwood deep in the forest near Aptos, California.
Photo: Nadia Drake
Naturalists and self-appointed tree guardians fear the demise of mapped white redwoods and keep the locations of most carefully—and wisely—guarded. The first documented mention of the albino redwood occurred on December 26, 1896, when a reporter for the San Francisco Call wrote about a wagonload of Christmas trees newly arrived from Sonoma. Some of them were freakishly white. “This newly fashioned wood is positively necessary to meet the exigencies of the occasion,” the reporter wrote. “For in reality these leaves are white eternally.”
Then, the description: “Wherever there is green in the redwood there is white in this one. That is to say, the young shoots and the leaves are white, with something of a waxen hue perceptible.”
The reporter interviewed Dr. Gustav Eisen from the California Academy of Sciences, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Eisen explained the new phenomenon: “There is no pigment in the green of the redwood leaf. The color is caused by an insect, and for some reason the insect cannot live in these white trees.” Now, we know that insects don’t cause the white color; it results instead from a genetic mutation that simultaneously renders the tree pigment-free and incapable of surviving on its own.
By 1902, the mysterious tree had a name. L.H. Bailey described the albino redwood in The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture as “a smaller tree than the type form, with creamy white younger leaves and more glaucescent older leaves. It is called in California the ‘white redwood’ and the ‘silverleaf redwood.’”
Nearly 115 years later, the name has stuck. But still, no one knows exactly how many snow-white redwoods are out there or precisely how the tree becomes white and survives, despite its frailty and inability to live independently.
Naturalists estimate that fewer than 100 of these trees grow in California. Near Santa Cruz, the central coast’s best-known surfing town, seven of the trees stand in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and eight reportedly cling to life in the Aptos hills. Redwoods themselves only grow naturally in a limited area, restricted to a swath of foggy coastline running southward from the California-Oregon border to Big Sur.
In Santa Cruz, one of these ethereal oddities is tucked away behind a “no trespassing” sign and several hundred meters of mountain trail. The phantom is nearly invisible until directly underfoot. From afar it wears a disguise, camouflaged as a yearling lucky enough to spring forth into a patch of incredibly bright sunlight, needles reflecting a blinding solar glare.
Redwood forests, however, are among the darkest on earth and such sunny spots are as rare as the white dwarves. Redwood trees grow in clusters called “fairy rings” or “cathedrals.” Towering dark green canopies and long-limbed reddish branches shade the forest floor, creating shelters scented with earthy leaf litter, fragrant wood and forest dew. Here, giant siblings compete with one another for light, ultimately stretching hundreds of feet above the needle-carpeted ground, seemingly reaching for the stars.
There is no patch of brilliant sunlight here in the Aptos forest. There is just a small, unassuming, rare snowy redwood, its white needles drooping delicately as if a hundred waxy icicles hung from its branches.
This tree is at least 25 years old, yet is barely six feet tall, one-thirtieth the height of its tallest neighbors. Still, the tiny redwood looms large in the minds of its protectors, intrepid hikers who find it by accident or local residents who’ve visited it for years.
The product of an unknown genetic mutation, these so-called “everwhites” have lost the ability to produce chlorophyll—the green-pigmented, energy-trapping compound plants rely upon to fuel the conversion of carbon dioxide into sugar. Without chlorophyll, these albinos have no energy source; they’re like an electric car without a rechargeable battery. Instead, they tap into the root systems of nearby trees, sucking vital nutrients from their neighbors like pale, moonlit vampires.
This necessity keeps the ghostly parasites small, limiting their height to maybe 40 feet at most, and limiting them to growing only at the base of their much larger cousins. Some casual observers swear the milky moochers appear and disappear at will, but in reality, though the ghosts often shrivel during droughts, they unfurl and plump up during the rainy season.
Two teams of researchers are trying to puzzle out this rare spectre. Stanford University scientists are sequencing albino tree genomes, looking for mutations that might lead to the ghostly sheen. And researchers at UC Santa Cruz, a campus with thousands of its own native redwoods, are examining the ghost tree’s physiology. They are trying to determine how such frail and unlikely organisms manage to survive in a forest densely populated by Earth’s tallest living things.
Indeed, the normal redwood genome itself is the subject of active research as scientists study the improbably huge trees’ survival and inter-relatedness. Redwood genetics is complicated: Instead of containing two copies of each chromosome, as do humans, redwood cells have six copies of each chromosome. Some think this abundance of genetic material allows the trees to maintain a high degree of genetic diversity while it simultaneously increases genomic plasticity, or the ability to adapt to changing environments.
Although albinism—or loss of pigmentation—is fairly common in animals, it is quite rare in plants since pigmented photosynthetic compounds are necessarily colorful and essential for life. Most animal genomes can support some form of albinism, whether partial or complete, since color and cellular energy aren’t tightly linked. The best-known examples are the albino rat, with its beady red eyes, and the similarly hued albino mouse. But there are also albino humans, squirrels, peacocks, and deer, among others.
Upstate New York, for example, is home to one of the largest white deer populations in the world, courtesy of an old ammunition depot located between Cayuga and Seneca Lakes in the state’s Finger Lakes region. Stuck behind 24 miles of fence since 1941, the white-tailed deer population has passed around a mutation causing whiteness in fur. Now, approximately one-third of the 700-odd population resemble the ungulate, antlered version of a unicorn. Flashing through the trees like ghosts but unable to escape their captivity, the deer are destined to continue sharing the mutant gene. It’s not uncommon to see drivers gawking at their gleaming white fur or stopping to take pictures of bleached herds in the distance.
But unlike the white redwoods a continent away, everyone knows where they are. Also unlike the redwoods, they’re protected by law: Hunters are forbidden from shooting a white deer, whereas tree enthusiasts can pick branches from any rare redwood they find.
Why are humans so entranced with mutant white organisms? It’s true that all-black organisms receive a fair amount of attention, too—black swans, black squirrels, and black cats, for example. But you won’t find a non-profit dedicated to saving the black mamba or warning people against revealing the location of black-bellied fruit flies.
There’s something about the bleached white that activates our imaginations. Maybe it’s the omniscience of an all-white light or otherworldly being, referenced in religious texts or tales of near-death experiences. White canvases and white pages are blank slates for artists to fill. Or maybe it’s a sense of goodness and purity: Brides wear white and Prince Charming rides a white horse. Maybe, it’s just the extreme difficulty of keeping white shirts, socks, or carpets clean.
Complete whiteness carries with it an aura of unattainable and ephemeral perfection, like freshly fallen snow destined to melt or end up splashed with mud. Ultimately, perhaps we are drawn to albinism only as a temporary novelty amidst the highly pigmented and, in the end, more dazzling and vigorous world we usually inhabit.
White redwoods lend the California coast a dash of intrigue and offer visitors the chance to embark on a treasure hunt—as long as “x” never marks the spot. The albino tree I found in Santa Cruz, this genetic improbability in a ghostly shade, will remain hidden in its unmarked grove.