Albino redwoods — ghastly pale, stunted versions of the famous tree species that aren't "red" (or even green) at all but instead nearly white —  have left arborists scratching their heads since they were first documented in 1866. That is — perhaps! — until now: The San Jose Mercury News has a report on the work of Zane Moore, a UC Davis Doctoral student, who has come to a compelling conclusion about the plants after analyzing albino redwood needles. At odds with preexisting ideas about the white trees, sometimes called "ghosts of the forest," Moore believes the trees could be making a positive contribution to their more verdant siblings.

The albino redwoods, which grow out of otherwise healthy redwoods, lack color due to a genetic mutation. They have no chlorophyll, the pigment that makes plants green and helps them photosynthesize. As many as 400 of them exist in California, the most of them in Santa Cruz. But rather than leaching the strength of healthy redwoods, albino redwoods might instead be absorbing toxins, pulling them out of the soil and helping other redwoods in so doing. “They are basically poisoning themselves,” Moore suggests to the Mercury News, “They are like a liver or kidney that is filtering toxins.”

“Albino redwoods are parasites," says Emily Burns, director of science at Save the Redwoods League in San Francisco, "and if these sprouts have some sort of a function, that’s really cool.”

Dave Kuty, a docent at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park who assisted Moore, puts it this way: “Maybe the albinos are acting like a sponge — to get the bad stuff out of the soil and the plants... That’s a possibility, but we need to do more research.” If it turns at that their hypothesis is correct, perhaps albino redwoods might be cloned and used to clean up waste sites.

Moore will present research at the Coast Redwood Science Symposium in Eureka this week. "With its limited range and high value, the coast redwood forest is a microcosm of many of the emerging science and management issues facing today’s forested landscape," a description of that symposium explains. "As new information is collected and new management approaches and treatments tried, it is critical that policies and strategies guiding use and management within the redwood region be reviewed and updated based on objective scientific information."

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