Mutation Illustration

Mutation Illustration

Albinism is rare but can be seen most often in redwood trees.

Albinism is rare but can be seen most often in redwood trees.

Most people are familiar with the genetic mutation, albinism, where an organism produces no pigment and appears very pale or even white. However, this mutation is most commonly associate with animals, when plants can display a variation as well. The most well-known of these plants is the albino redwood.

Though rare, several specimens of redwood exist which display albinism: in plants this means they are unable to produce chlorophyll making leaves or needles very pale yellow or even white. While this would be an automatic death sentence for most plants, redwoods and other conifers (sometimes called “everwhites”) displaying albinism have a trick to staying alive: parasitism.

Usually sprouting near the base of a healthy redwood tree, their growth habit may seem like stump sprouting, but it allows the albino plant to graft its roots to the healthy plant. Once the graft is in place, usually with the parent plant, the mutated tree can absorb nutrients directly. This seems like a pretty sweet deal for the albino tree but parasitism severely stresses the host tree and is not without its challenges for the parasite. Even when feeding off the healthiest of specimens the nutrient uptake is insufficient leaving albino plants weak and wilted, which is why so many look like Christmas trees on Groundhog Day.

Redwood tree with the rare genetic mutation making it unable to produce chlorophyll. This would mean instant death for most plants but redwoods and other conifers with this condition (nicknamed "everwhites") employ a special trick to survive; parasitism.

Redwood tree with the rare genetic mutation making it unable to produce chlorophyll. This would mean instant death for most plants but redwoods and other conifers with this condition (nicknamed “everwhites”) employ a special trick to survive; parasitism.

Sometimes even further  mutation occurs producing chimera trees. A chimera is defined a single organism that is composed of two or more different populations of genetically distinct cells that originated from different zygotes involved in sexual reproduction. This can display as an albino tree which has healthy, green tissue as well. Redwood chimeras will have 2 distinct sets of DNA within a specimen, which would be like 2 people in one body of a human. That genetic mutation is so rare, in the 10s of millions of acres of redwood forests in California, only 10 chimeric individuals have been identified.