This Albino Redwood Tree Isn't Dead — But It Came Close

Jul 28, 2014
Originally published on July 28, 2014 6:40 pm
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And now a story about an extremely rare albino tree. If you pass it on the street, it might look dead. It's not dead. It was almost killed. But now it's going to survive thanks, in part, to this guy.

ZANE MOORE: My name is Zane Moore. I'm an undergraduate botany student at Colorado State University. And I'm studying chlorophyll- deficient redwoods.

SHAPIRO: In other words, albino redwoods.

MOORE: In other words, albino redwoods, yes.

SHAPIRO: One of which is growing not too far from you.

MOORE: Yeah. There's an albino redwood growing about 45 minutes north of San Francisco in a little town called Cotati. And it is the tallest albino redwood we know about. And it's also really special because it's a chimera - two different sets of DNA, two genetic individuals that are inside one bud or one meristem of a plant.

SHAPIRO: And does that make this tree kind of half albino and half not?

MOORE: Yes, that makes this tree half albino and half normal, green redwood.

SHAPIRO: Explain how rare a tree like this is.

MOORE: OK, well, the tree like this - a chimera - is extremely rare. We know of only about 10 chimeras in the redwood species.

SHAPIRO: When you say 10 per species, you mean there may be thousands and thousands of redwood trees out there that are a total of 10 like this one.

MOORE: Yes. Millions, really. There are millions of acres of redwood forest in California. There are only 10 of these trees known.


MOORE: So extremely rare.

SHAPIRO: It was originally going to be cut down to make way for a set of railroad tracks. And I understand now it's just going to be moved. How difficult is it to move a great big redwood tree, let alone an albino one?

MOORE: It can be a pretty hefty task to move one of these trees. The tree is 52 feet tall, and has a pretty nice crown spread of probably about 30 feet. So that means that its roots spread is at least 30 feet out away from the base of the tree. In order to move a tree, they have to dig a hole around this entire root system and lift the tree up. And then what they're planning on doing is making tracks to slide the tree over across the street and in a safer location.

SHAPIRO: OK, so explain how this albino redwood became a national celebrity.

MOORE: Tom Stapleton, an arborist who I am working with, and I found out that this tree was due to be cut down at the beginning of April. So we immediately went to the media - to the local paper, The Press Democrat out of Sonoma County. And immediately, within a few hours that day, the story went national and even international to some places in the U.K., also.

SHAPIRO: What could scientists learn from studying a tree like this?

MOORE: Well, studying albino plants can be, for one, really interesting because albino plants produce very limited amounts of chlorophyll - the molecule that allows plants to photosynthesize. If scientists can better understand what allows a plant to make chlorophyll and what allows a plant like an albino not to make chlorophyll, we might be able to make better photovoltaic solar cells and potentially make better, more efficient sustainable energy for the future by learning more about how plants take the sun and make it into everything that we use today like food, oxygen, wood.

SHAPIRO: That's Zane Moore, a student botanist at Colorado State University, speaking with us from San Jose, California. Thanks very much.

MOORE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.