Amazing Places

Albino Ghost Trees Shouldn't Exist — But They Do

Imagine a walk through a forest of giant redwoods. The giants seem to gather closer around you as you wander deeper into the woods. And then it appears through the thick branches — a flash of perfect white. It's a small, stunted redwood devoid of color. Exactly where these "ghost trees" come from has long been a mystery.

Phantom of the Topiary

Only one man knows the location of all 11 albino redwoods in Henry Cowell Redwood State Park, and his name is Zane Moore. Unfortunately for any would be ghostbusters, he's not talking. As he told the Washington Post, "Trees can be loved to death." That's especially true of these rare mutants, which common sense dictates shouldn't be able to survive at all. They're white because they can't produce chlorophyll, and if they can't produce chlorophyll, they can't convert sunlight into sugar. They really shouldn't be, and yet here they are. Moore is the first person to investigate how they work.

Biologists before Moore had come up with theories to explain the trees' existence, based on a couple of known facts about redwood biology. First of all, redwoods can share a root network, which they use to spread resources around in times of famine. Secondly, when summer comes, the redwoods that don't contribute to the shared network are cut off and allowed to starve. Naturally, the assumption was that these albino trees had found a way to circumvent that cutoff and keep leeching off the roots of other trees all year long. That's why the albino trees were often known as "vampire trees."

You Scratch My Bark, I'll Scratch Yours

That explanation didn't really hold water for Moore. If the redwoods could reliably cut off otherwise healthy trees that weren't pulling their weight, then why would they be fooled by the albinos that never produce sugar in return? He figured the other trees must have been getting something in return, and to figure out what that might be, he examined where each of his park's albino redwoods could be found. Each of the white trees grew in a place with less-than-favorable conditions.

When Moore tested the plants' toxicity levels, a whole new answer came into focus. The white needles were saturated with the heavy metals cadmium, copper, and nickel — far more than would kill another tree. What if the albino trees justified their existence by sucking up the harmful materials that could poison others? That would explain why the jealous redwoods wouldn't cut off their scrawny white neighbors.

Rescue Tree

Moore has been interested in these trees for many years. He saw his first one at 16 and shortly became obsessed with them. In fact, he was only 20 the first time he was called on to rescue one of the ghost pines. In that case, it was the rarest of these rare trees: a chimera, a mix of two sets of DNA in one organism, making it half albino and half un-mutated redwood. Moore estimated that there were perhaps 10 such individuals in existence, and this one was lying directly in the path of a set of railroad tracks. But thanks to public outcry, led by Moore, the 52-foot-tall tree (much larger than full albinos) was moved to safer soil.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas March 1, 2018

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