As the world’s tallest trees, redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are already a uniquely impressive plant. These behemoths of the northern California coast are ancient relicts — leftover populations from the time dinosaurs roamed the earth amidst giant horsetails and tree ferns — and in the past decade, biologists have discovered entire forest ecosystems over 200 feet above the ground in the redwood canopy, complete with salamanders, huckleberry bushes, and even three feet high Doug firs.
So when I happened to come across an albino redwood today at the San Francisco Botanical Garden, I experienced a renewed sense of awe for this species, reminiscent of the first time I hiked wide-eyed under its pungent branches or slept in the protected tower of a fairy ring as a newbie adult at UC Santa Cruz. Rare and shockingly out-of-place, albino redwoods are not the 300-foot tall pure ivory spires, the shaggy yetis of the race of trees, as I’d once assumed. According to the book, Coast Redwood: A Natural and Cultural History, the largest recorded one is 80 feet high, but most reach less than 15 feet, for rather than growing like proper redwood trees, they are flimsy white shoots, sprouting from the roots, stump, or burl of a regular redwood. Since the albinism is caused by a genetic mutation that creates needles without chlorophyll, the green pigment essential to photosynthesis, the ghostly sprouts can’t make their own food. They are thus parasitic on the host tree or nearby sprouts, taking the sugars they’re chemically incapable of producing otherwise. Though the book alludes to 60 recorded locations, albino redwood sites are often kept secret in order to protect them from poachers, vandals, and curio-seekers. If you live in the Bay Area and haven’t seen one of these Sequoia freak-of-natures in the wild, you should go check it out for sure.