Mystery of the parasitic albino redwood trees

Redwoods are the giants of the forest - huge trees that can reproduce even when eaten by forest fires or destroyed by lightning. And now we've discovered that they harbor parasitic mutants in their midst. Albino redwood trees are born without chlorophyll, which means they can't convert light to energy the way other trees do. Instead they spend decades attached to the tree that grew them, borrowing food and nutrients from it.

Image by Mark Miller.

KQED science show Quest has a great story about these strange tree mutants. Amy Standen reports:

"Most of the things that redwoods do have a purpose, and that is to keep the organism alive," says Sandy Lydon, an author and retired professor of history at Cabrillo College.

He says albino redwoods break that rule. Without chlorophyll, they can't convert sunlight into energy. The only reason they survive at all is because they are sprouts from an adult tree, connected at the root. So, for their entire lives, they suck energy from that mother tree.

They're parasites," says Lydon. "They're freeloaders. They're not contributing a damn thing to the host tree. Nothing."

Eventually, the mother tree will cut ties to the albino sprout, and it'll die. But that might take a hundred years, or more. And no one knows why.

"They're mysterious." Says Lydon. "And that's what makes them so cool."

Read the story, or listen to the radio show about it, via KQED