Imagine a redwood tree so strange that its shape is like a cross between a twisted donut and a churro pastry. That may sound like a bizarre dessert gone awry but is actually a unique redwood growing in Sacramento California. Located near the city zoo, this unusual tree resides in William Land Regional Park.
From a distance, the tree appears like any other coast redwood, but when you get up close, you can see strange furrowed ridges along the trunk. Looking up, this odd arrangement transitions into a spiral pattern midway through the crown. The only other redwood known to display similar traits is the ‘Corkscrew Tree’ growing in Prairie Creek Redwood State Park. Other redwoods may exhibit interesting spiral patterns but none have these unusual characteristics seen within both of these trees.
Viewed from the south, this is the picture that gives the tree its namesake. Note how many furrowed ridges are within the bark.
Basal sprouts rising from the north side of the Churro Tree.
Here you can see a side-by-side comparison of the Churro Tree to a normal coast redwood. Note how unusual the bark pattern is when compared to the multistem tree on the right.
What’s also peculiar is there’s another redwood near the Churro Tree that has an unusual shape as well. The ‘Sideways Redwood’ grows only a few hundred feet away from the Churro Tree and exhibits a horizontal growing pattern despite its sunny location.
So, the question of why we’re seeing these unusual redwoods in Land Park may be linked to the Park’s past. Using history as our guide, the site of the park is situated in a flood zone adjacent to the Sacramento River. According to a 2018 article in the Sacramento Bee Newspaper: Willam Land Park Turns 100 Years Old in the 1850’s the land was used as a drainage slough for Sacramento's raw sewage disposal, while another section was used as a Civil War military camp. Field exercises were conducted at the camp during that time and it’s unknown if chemical ordinance was used. By 1916 the land became so contaminated in raw sewage that questions arose if the site was even suitable for consideration as a new park. At the time people voiced concerns that not even grass would grow there. In 1918 the land was acquired and slowly convert to a public park. It was sometime during the 1920s when the redwoods seen today were planted throughout the park.
So with the back story told, is the Churro Tree & Sideways Redwood the results of genetic mutations induced by soil contamination? It’s a question like this that drives researchers at Chimera Redwoods to find out. Currently, we’re in the process of collecting soil from these unique sites with the intent of testing them for heavy metals. That step will be done when funding can be secured at some point in the future.