For decades, a lone redwood has grown near the railroad tracks that run through the small city of Cotati, California. It was little noticed by most people—until officials announced that the tree had to be chopped down to make way for a new transit system. Now arborists, researchers, and historians have banded together to save it.
The tree is a rarity called a chimeric albino redwood. Mixed among its normal green needles are ghostly patches of yellowish white needles. Albino redwoods have been documented since at least 1866, but they are very unusual. Amador County arborist Tom Stapleton and Colorado State University botany student Zane Moore have documented only 230 of the trees in California.
"Albinism in plants is strange because no chlorophyll means no photosynthesis, which means no life," says Moore. A plant that completely lacks chlorophyll usually can't survive. That's why most albino redwoods are small, weak parasitic plants the size of bushes and grow connected to a larger, healthy parent tree.
Even among this rare group, the Cotati specimen is special, experts say, because it's a chimera, combining both normal tissue and albino tissues in the same independent tree. Moore and Stapleton know of only ten other examples, and almost all of them are stunted and relatively frail. The Cotati tree is 52 feet tall and very healthy. More surprising still, says Moore, this year it has begun producing both male and female cones—the reproductive structures of conifers—which he and other experts have never seen before.
Studying this unique tree could help researchers understand why albinism occurs in redwoods. Because albino and normal green needles occur on the same tree, botanists can study subtle differences between the white and the green tissue in a single specimen. "Geneticists create mutations in plants in order to study how the absence of a gene affects the overall function," says Jarmila Pittermann, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz, who has been studying albino redwoods. "With a tree like this, we have a rare chance to study this in nature."