Thanks to the efforts of local citizens, historians and conservationists, one of the rarest trees in the world has been granted a reprieve. Now, instead of being cut down to make room for a railway expansion project in Cotati, California, crews will move the tree about 450 feet from its current location, where it will hopefully live for years to come.
The project, which has an estimated price tag of $150,000 according to NBC Bay Area, was deemed appropriate as the “Cotati redwood,” is one of only a handful of albino chimeric redwoods in the world. (Fernandez, 2014) Clad in a patchwork of green and white leaves, the unusual tree intrigues onlookers and tantalizes scientists, who are eager to explore the tree’s hidden secrets.
Why Is This Tree So Special?
The first albino redwoods were likely discovered in 1866, but in the nearly 150 years since then, scientists have only documented about 230 similar trees in the State of California, according to “National Geographic.” (Jaret, 2014)
Most of these albino redwoods are extremely small and frail; unlike their towering relatives that soar 300 feet or more into the air, most albino redwoods are decidedly shrub-like. Yet, the Cotati tree is unlikely to be confused with a shrub. The tallest such mutant ever discovered, the unique redwood stands over 50 feet tall and has a crown that is 30 feet in diameter.
Most albino redwoods are parasites that derive sustenance from the roots of other redwoods. But strangely, this special tree stands alone, isolated from other redwoods. Combined with the tree’s tendency to produce both male and female cones – the only albino chimera documented to do so — terms such as “one of a kind,” are potentially appropriate for this special tree.
The term “albino” is a colloquial term that is usually used to describe amelanistic organisms. Plants do not produce melanin, but most produce chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is the pigment that enables plants to conduct photosynthesis and gives them their green color. Therefore, “albino” plants appear white or yellowish, as they fail to produce chlorophyll.
Without chlorophyll, plants cannot convert sunlight into energy; accordingly, most die early in life and are only rarely observed. This is why most albino redwoods are parasitic: They cannot produce their own food. Instead, they survive by stealing nutrients from the roots of other, healthy redwoods. The ability to derive sustenance from the roots of other plants is rare, and explains why redwoods are capable of producing albinos that survive, while most other albino plants die as soon as the energy reserves from their seeds run out.
However, the Cotati redwood does not derive resources from a host tree.
A Tale of Two Trees
The key to the relative success of the redwood in question – and the handful of others like it — lies in its genes. The Cotati tree is a chimera, meaning that it has the DNA of two different trees located in its meristems (areas of rapid cell division in a tree). In essence, this single tree is comprised of two different individuals.
This unique compliment of genes means that some of the tree’s leaves get ordinary genetic instructions. These leaves are green in color and produce food for the tree. The mutant genes supply the code for other leaves, so they fail to produce chlorophyll, and are white in color. The combination of white and green leaves gives the tree its patchy look, and likely provides the explanation for how it survives: The numerous green leaves produce enough energy to support the entire tree, including the white leaves.
Scientists are still in the dark about many details of the phenomenon, which further illustrates the importance of protecting and studying this tree. Fortunately for the world, a local landowner named Pete Tapian planted the unique specimen about 70 years ago, where it still stands today, at least for the time being.
Visiting the Rare Redwoods
The exact location of most albino redwoods is closely guarded to protect their wellbeing. While the Cotati tree is probably farther away from the Los Angeles area than most people would care to travel (approximately 420 miles), there are quite a few normal redwood trees in the greater Los Angeles area. Check out this map to see a few of the closest documented specimens.
Fernandez, L. (2014, July 28). Tallest Albino Redwood Chimera Tree in Wine Country to be Saved, Moved at Cost of $150,000. Retrieved from nbcbayarea.com: http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/Tallest-Albino-Redwood-Chimera-Tree-in-Wine-Country-to-be-Saved-Moved-at-Cost-of-150000-268897841.html
Jaret, P. (2014, March 19). Rare “Albino” Redwood May Hold Clues to the Super-Trees’ Longevity. Retrieved from NationalGeographic.com: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/03/140319-redwood-albino-chimera-california-tree-tallest/
Lapidos, J. (2009, January 6). How Many Albinos Are in Tanzania? Retrieved from Slate.com: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2009/01/how_many_albinos_are_in_tanzania.html