Picture of tall albino tree

Searching for California’s mysterious albino redwood

It’s an evergreen that’s white. It lives like a moocher and looks like a ghost. It’s a genetic marvel, wrapped in an enigma.

Albino redwoods grow along the fog-drenched coast of central and Northern California, but their locations are closely guarded to protect them from trophy-clippers and decorators.

Across a steep canyon, a ghost floats in the darkness—a phantom in this redwood forest, somewhere in California’s Santa Cruz County.

We slip-slide into the gully, landing in spongy piles of discarded needles, ferns, and poison oak, and then we scale the other slope. A great horned owl hoots once, twice, three times. Dawn is just beginning to tickle the treetops, but down here, beneath the forest canopy, it’s still chilly twilight.

A few feet away, the astonishingly white tree hovers like an otherworldly apparition, its crown high above our heads. It’s an albino redwood. An enigma. A biological improbability—an organism that shouldn’t exist.

“My guess is that this thing is probably a hundred years old, or more,” says graduate student Zane Moore, who studies redwood genomes at the University of California, Davis. “It’s one of the tallest in the county.”

Rather than being evergreen, the tree is everwhite, its needles soft and waxy. Normally Sequoia sempervirens, the coast redwood, survives by harvesting sunlight and turning it into food—but this albino is missing a crucial component of the basic cellular machinery it needs to feed itself. Instead, it taps into the root system of its pigmented parent and steals sugars and nutrients.

Although rare on Earth, albinos grow naturally within the fog-drenched coast redwood range. They’re a scientific puzzle—mutated trees that are somehow allowed to survive, even as parent trees discard other shoots. A few are tall like the tree we’re visiting, but most are shorter and shrubbier. Others have sprouted high up in their parent trees. Maybe 50 or so are naturally occurring white-and-green chimeras, organisms with two distinct sets of genetic instructions. One of these trees, which was growing near a right-of-way in Sonoma County, is so beloved that when railway builders threatened to cut it down in 2014, local residents forced the company to dig it up, load it onto a truck, and relocate it.

The trees first appeared in publications in the mid-1800s, when settlers started noticing their curiously creamy foliage. Since then, and with a few exceptions, the albinos’ locations have been closely guarded to protect them from trophy-clippers or decorators, like those who once festooned an opera house with the snowy sprigs.

The towering albino we visited at dawn has been known since the 1970s, says Moore, now one of the world’s experts on the trees. He and a colleague are keepers of the albino redwood map, an evolving guide to the roughly 630 known albinos growing between southern Oregon and central California. Some of these trees have been cultivated by enthusiasts. Others, maybe a hundred or so, Moore has stumbled upon accidentally, including the one he glimpsed while snarled in beach traffic on a notorious California highway. Mostly, he says, he chases them based on historical reports or tips from locals: “It’s like a treasure hunt.”

Later in the day, he shows me the first albino he ever encountered. It lives in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, where a well-trodden loop trail allows visitors to experience the majesty and monstrosity that is an old-growth redwood grove: thick, towering trees with twisted bark and gnarly burls, split crowns, fused trunks, and even a burned-out cavern big enough for dozens of people to squeeze into.

Surrounded by ferns and fragrant, dewy leaf litter, these massive trees dominate the landscape and lend an almost primordial appearance to the forest. Moore’s first albino, in contrast, is a roughly human-height mix of brown and white branches, tucked into an unmarked grove near the park’s railroad tracks. He found it in 2011 after he watched a documentary about the albinos and decided to go see one for himself. “And around the same time, I’m realizing, Oh, I could do botany as a living?” Moore recalls. “You know, I really like plants.”

Everything about albino redwoods is tinged with mystery. How they survive, and sometimes appear to thrive; their physiology; their anatomy; the mutations that make their bone-white color. Even the scientific literature describing the trees is sparse. Recently, scientists went hunting for albino-producing mutations but were thwarted by the redwood genome itself—a colossal, just sequenced assemblage of 26.5 billion base pairs distributed among six pairs of 11 chromosomes. (Humans, by comparison, have three billion base pairs and 23 pairs of chromosomes.)

Researchers do know that, in addition to lacking photosynthetic machinery, the trees have almost no control over water loss through small openings in their leaves, which happens more quickly in higher temperatures. The albino trees also have weaker wood than the pigmented trees, perhaps because they can’t easily make a compound called lignin that’s crucial for building cell walls. “It’s hard working with these long-lived plants,” says ecophysiologist Jarmila Pittermann of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who did the work on water loss. “I’m also fascinated by the fact that there really are a lot of them here” in Santa Cruz County, she says.

In 2016, Moore discovered that some albinos contain much higher levels of cadmium, nickel, and copper than their green parents—as much as 11 times the amount needed to damage a plant. He wondered whether the albinos were sequestering those heavy metals and in some way benefiting their parent trees, which researchers suspect could otherwise choose to shut off the albinos’ food supply. So far, there’s no consensus among scientists about what’s going on. And now, in a twist, researchers at Princeton University who are studying how carbon and hydrogen atoms travel through the trees’ metabolic pathways are using the trees to possibly better reconstruct ancient environmental conditions.

People often say that albino redwoods are ephemeral—ghosts that materialize and vanish, phantoms that hide in plain view. But in the realm of the California redwoods, humans are the fleeting apparitions. At Henry Cowell Park, a ceremoniously displayed stump came from a tree that sprouted in a California forest two centuries before the birth of Christianity. The oldest tree in the park has been soaking up sunlight for more than a thousand years.

Yet even the supposedly frail albinos outlive us. Moore shows me one growing near the park’s railroad tracks that also appeared in a photograph from 1877—a gleaming bush nonchalantly sprouting next to the curving metal. And he tells me that a few miles away, a huge tree exists that was first described in 1912.

“It was fully cut down in the 1970s, but it’s still growing back,” Moore says. “You want to see a spectacular albino? That’s it. Covers 728 square feet, and it’s about 15-ish, maybe 15, 20 feet tall on average, just this big clump of white. It’s really something else.”

Of course we go see it. Casually growing between two houses, the tree is a riotous gathering of milky branches erupting in every direction—a thicket large enough to get lost in—that has regrown in just 50 years. Now, every threat to redwoods is also a threat to the albinos, Pittermann says, because “their vigor is impacted by the health of the parent tree.” But this razed tree’s regrowth is the same phenomenon seen after forest fires: White shoots often are among the fastest to regrow from flame-damaged landscapes. “It’s amazing, right?” she says.

I grew up in the arms of an old-growth redwood grove, a place that feels more precious every day. Yet it took me nearly 25 years to spot the bushy cluster of albino sprouts along one of my childhood trails: a froth of snow-white needles the size of a minivan. Like most people, I’d traipsed by it multiple times, oblivious to its striking colors or perhaps dismissing it as a trick of sunlight. To this day the tree, an embodiment of the peculiar and the unlikely, is thriving. Though precisely where, I won’t say.

Contributing writer Nadia Drake enjoyed this sylvan break from covering the James Webb Space Telescope and other space oddities. Photographer Kenny Hurtado, a longtime chronicler of coastal California culture, is now based in the Midwest.

This story appears in the May 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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