Day after day you walk the same trail and see the same flora and fauna. But then one day something unusual catches your eye, and upon closer inspection you realize an anomaly has presented itself on your proverbial path.

Long-time Tahoe City resident Wolf Schaefer spotted an albino fir tree in the Mt. Watson area in May, an occurrence so rare that UC Davis Forest Pathologist/Ecologist Patricia Maloney said it’s possibly the only one of its kind in the entire Tahoe National Forest. Schaefer described the tree as glowing “like a jewel, like gold” when the sun shone on the top third portion, its branches vibrant yellow as compared to the lower green branches. Maloney explained that this white fir, Abies concolor, is a product of albinism, a lack of, or containing very limited amounts of, chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is an essential biomolecule that helps plants absorb energy from the sun. Schaefer estimates the albino specimen to be 8 to 10 feet tall and 20 to 30 years old.

A similar anomaly, an albino redwood, was found in 2014 in Cotati, north of San Francisco.  Zane Moore, an undergraduate botany student studying chlorophyll-deficient redwoods at Colorado State University, described the phenomenon, called chimera, as a plant having two different sets of DNA that turn part of the tree white and the other part green. In a National Geographic article, Moore states: “Albinism in plants is strange because no chlorophyll means no photosynthesis, which means no life. A plant that completely lacks chlorophyll usually can’t survive.” Since there are only about 230 albino redwoods on record in California, little is known about what causes a tree to lose its pigmentation. Moore speculates albinism might be a tree’s adaptation to cope with stress. “We’ve seen an unusual number of very young albinos coming up, which may be because of the drought that California and the west is experiencing,” he wrote. Another speculation is that albinism is an evolutionary mutation.


You never know what discovery will be made when you’re out on your next adventure in the great outdoors. For Wolf Schaefer, the forest revealed an unexpected secret, turning his customary walk into a remarkable one.   

~ Have you seen an albino redwood or another rare species? Email


  • Eve Quesnel

    Eve Quesnel has lived in Truckee for 35 years with her husband Bill, once-upon-a-time daughter Kim-now on her own-and many dogs through the years, currently a Border Collie-Aussi mix. Her favorite pastimes include walking in her neighborhood and nearby woods, hiking in the high Sierra, and reading and writing. Quesnel is now retired from teaching English at Sierra College in Truckee but continues to pursue several writing projects. She is intrigued by the natural world of which she explores and writes about for the column "Nature's Corner" in Moonshine Ink.

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