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Mystery Of White Trees Among California's Redwoods May Be Solved

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's unravel a mystery from the redwood forests of the Pacific Northwest. For years, the purpose of what's called the ghosts of the forest has stumped scientists. The ghosts are smaller white trees that sprout from the giant majestic redwoods. It turns out these albinos are a kind of parasite. And as Paul Rogers of the San Jose Mercury News and KQED explains...

PAUL ROGERS, BYLINE: They're actually part of other redwood trees. They can grow straight up from the roots. They can grow out from the branches. Sometimes they grow hundreds of feet off the ground. And scientists have kind of joked that these are the part of the forest that sits on the couch while the rest of the trees go out and get a job.

MONTAGNE: But hey, the albino trees' reputation for sponging off the redwoods may be undeserved. Zane Moore, a researcher at the University of California Davis, analyzed some of the needles from these trees and found something interesting.

ROGERS: They have levels of these toxic heavy metals, like nickel and cadmium and copper, that are twice as high as healthy redwood trees - in some cases, much higher. And so his theory is that they may actually not be freeloaders at all.

MONTAGNE: Paul Rogers says the research suggests the albino redwoods might function like a liver, filtering out toxic metals and waste. And if this proves true, it could have an impact on the future health of forests.

ROGERS: One of the interesting potential uses of these trees is to clone them. And then you could plant them in areas where there are toxics in the soils. And they could potentially naturally clean up those toxics.

MONTAGNE: So those albino redwoods may be a kind of sponge after all and a really useful kind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters, I tell you, this land was made for you and me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.