Ghostly Redwoods Are Forest's Rare Haunting

They're known as "ghost trees," and for good reason: Albino redwoods are extremely rare and nearly impossible to spot. There may be as few as 25 of these trees in the world, yet eight of them are at Henry Cowell Redwood State Park in Northern California. They lack chlorophyll and suck energy from their parent tree.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Park rangers in the Northern California Redwood Forest are protecting a decades-old secret. Actually, eight of them: Albino redwood trees.

From member station KQED, Amy Standen reports that these so-called ghost trees are pale, fragile, and deliberately off the beaten track.

AMY STANDEN: Henry Cowell Redwood State Park is about an hour south of San Francisco. Some of the trees here are as tall as 20-story buildings and as old as Mayan temples. But that's not what stops docent Dave Kuty in his tracks.

Mr. DAVE KUTY: Did you see it in advance?

STANDEN: Well, when you stopped, that was sort of a giveaway. But, it is kind of weird looking.

Kuty points to a white bush. It's about six feet tall and it's sprouted from the base of a normal redwood tree.

Mr. KUTY It's not particularly tall. It's not particularly big. And so it could look dead.

STANDEN: Until you get up close. Albino redwood trees lack chlorophyll. Their needles are limp and waxy. They're the exact color of a glow-in-the-dark star you might find in a kid's bedroom. And while no one really knows for sure, albino redwood trees may be extremely rare.

Mr. KUTY How rare? Some people say there's 25 in the world.

STANDEN: And yet, eight of them live here. This park has the largest known concentration of albino redwoods anywhere, and that makes it the epicenter for a scientific mystery.

Mr. SANDY LYDON (Historian): Most of the things that redwoods do have a purpose.

STANDEN: This is historian Sandy Lydon.

Mr. LYDON: And that's, of course, keep the organism alive.

STANDEN: But albino redwoods break that rule. Albinism is a genetic mutation that prevents cells from producing pigment. In humans and other animals, albinism is not necessarily such a big deal. But albino plants are unable to do the very thing that makes a plant a plant.

Without chlorophyll, they can't photosynthesize, meaning they can't convert sunlight into energy. The only reason that albino redwoods survive at all is that they are connected at the root to a parent tree from which they will suck energy for their entire lives.

Mr. LYDON: They're parasites. They're freeloaders.

STANDEN: Lydon says it's like some 40-year-old who refuses to get a job, keeps eating his parents' food and sleeping in his old bedroom. In the case of the redwoods, this arrangement can last a century, or more - and no one knows why.

Mr. LYDON: See, that's what makes it so cool.

STANDEN: Here's what we do know: Albino redwoods even though they appear to be useless are evidence, you could say, of the coastal redwood's great and hidden strengths. Again, park docent Dave Kuty.

Mr. KUTY: Redwoods are hexaploid.

STANDEN: Meaning they have six sets of chromosomes.

Mr. KUTY: As opposed to the two like we have.

STANDEN: Genetically speaking, coastal redwoods are playing with a much bigger deck of cards than we humans are. There are more genetic combinations possible.

Mr. KUTY: They are thought to be the most adaptable tree on earth by being able to change their genes so readily.

STANDEN: Every time a sprout comes up with slightly different genes, it's kind of like an experiment. If it works, that tree might set the course for the generations of the future.

Mr. KUTY They can develop resistance to fungi. They can develop resistance to viruses. They can develop better growth patterns.

STANDEN: And sometimes, they can develop a trait that is of absolutely no use to them at all, an evolutionary dead end.

Mr. KUTY: Albinos probably aren't a particularly good modification, from the standpoint of the health of the forest, but they demonstrate there's a lot of experimentation going on.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

STANDEN: A few yards off the main trail, historian Sandy Lydon climbs a slight rise up to an old railroad track.

What do you see?

Mr. LYDON: I see a white redwood shrub.

STANDEN: If you didn't know what to look for, you'd almost certainly walk right by it. Lydon says that's exactly the idea.

Mr. LYDON: You know, we've got a couple of them that are labeled, and then the rest we don't tell people about.

STANDEN: A few too many fans taking home souvenirs and these trees could disappear entirely. Lydon says keeping the trees a secret is the best way to keep their mystery alive.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen, in San Francisco.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: