SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A researcher may have figured out that albino redwoods — long considered freeloaders — contribute to the health of California’s deep green redwood forests by clearing toxins.
The trees appear to act as a liver or kidney, filtering toxins from the soil around them, San Jose researcher Zane Moore, a doctoral student at UC Davis, told The Mercury News.
Zane has analyzed the needles of the redwood leaves in a lab and found that they contain high levels of the toxic heavy metals nickel, copper and cadmium. “They are basically poisoning themselves,” Moore told the newspaper.
They appear to be drawing away and storing pollution, some of it occurring naturally in the soils and some left from railroads, highways and other man-made sources that otherwise could degrade or kill redwoods.
Scientists know that albino redwoods are genetic mutations that attach themselves to the roots and branches of normal redwood trees and live by drawing sugars off the huge host trees.
The phantom plants were first documented in 1866. Later investigation found that the albino redwoods, which grow out of healthy redwoods, are white because of a genetic mutation that leaves them without chlorophyll.
Although their locations in many places are kept secret to keep poachers and souvenir hunters away, Moore plans to carefully catalog the locations of albino redwoods across the natural range of redwood forests, which stretches about 400 miles from the Oregon border to Big Sur.
There are roughly 400 such trees in the state, with Santa Cruz county having the highest concentration.
Moore’s research will be included this week at the annual Coast Redwood Science Symposium in Eureka.
Emily Burns, director of science at Save the Redwoods League in San Francisco, called the results fascinating. “Albino redwoods are parasites, and if these sprouts have some sort of a function, that’s really cool,” Burns said.
Additional research is needed, she said, to find answers to find out why there aren’t more albino redwoods.
Dave Kuty, who works as a docent at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton, California, said the easiest way to see an albino redwood is to hike the park’s loop trail near its headquarters and look for Marker 14, where an 8-foot-tall albino redwood is growing.
This story has been corrected to show researcher figured out purpose of albino redwoods, not why they turn white.