Loving meadowfoam

Chico environmentalist’s quest raises deep thoughts about nature of life

PLANTING AN IDEA: To Tanya Heinrich and plant lovers like her, Butte County meadowfoam represents more than a subspecies of plant that’s frustrated developers here. It’s about humans’ relationship with nature, and what they value.

PLANTING AN IDEA: To Tanya Heinrich and plant lovers like her, Butte County meadowfoam represents more than a subspecies of plant that’s frustrated developers here. It’s about humans’ relationship with nature, and what they value.

Photo by Mark Thalman

In season: Butte County meadowfoam shows its white-and-yellow blossoms annually from late March through April. It usually is found along the edges of vernal swales. It lives only within a 25-mile area in Butte County.

To help you understand why Butte County meadowfoam—a tiny, white-and-yellow-flowered plant that has won the hearts of botanists and the ire of developers—is so important, says Tanya Heinrich, you have to watch the movie Soylent Green.

Yes, Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston in a role he was born to play: law enforcer in a futuristic environmental hell-on-Earth of poverty, war, small slabs of beef selling for hundreds of dollars and, in the final blow of man’s inhumanity to man, people eating people.

The 1973 movie, Heinrich says, illustrates the opposite of what humans now enjoy, “making the case for the richness of the diversity of life.” Without natural things—clear night skies, open space, a variety of plants and animals and clean lakes—"the joy is gone.”

Heinrich knows she may sound a little over-the-top.

“I just somehow got hooked on this flower,” she says, almost sheepishly. “There’s still a dichotomy with the plant. There are people who love it for the intrinsic value of the plant—the fact that it’s rare, it’s fussy, it’s unique.” Then, there are those who use the idea of species such as Butte County meadowfoam, which may seem insignificant in the larger scheme of life, to spark heady introspection about personal and societal values and the relative importance of one species to another.

Heinrich, half amateur botanist, half environmental activist, sees the plant both ways.

She writes letters to the editors of Chico newspapers. She’s presented school board members with framed drawings of the pretty little wildflower. The City Council knows her by name: Earlier causes include overpopulation and nuclear waste. Heinrich is the last person who’d be invited to one of those Republican dinners with joke fairy shrimp salad, red-legged-frog legs and spotted-owl stew on the menu.

But she’s not, she swears, being overly dramatic.

“Everything is connected to everything else, and you can never do just one thing,” she says, putting words to a concept that is second-nature to environmental ethicists. In this view, all creatures live in a state of interdependence with all others, and with the greater universe—soil, water, sun, air. Damage done to any one part of it is damage done to all parts.

People, she says, need to think about what they care about in their lives: shopping malls versus vistas, for example.

A subspecies of plant, Butte County meadowfoam—Limnanthes floccosa ssp. Californica—was listed as a federally endangered species in 1992 and is protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Is Butte County meadowfoam more important than construction that would make Highways 149 and 70 safer where they meet? More important than hundreds of schoolchildren who would be attending Canyon View High School had it already gotten the OK to build along Bruce Road in South Chico? More important than a house of God? (The Pleasant Valley Assembly of God unsuccessfully battled to build on meadowfoam-dotted wetlands along Humboldt Road.)

The debate is a philosophical one. “A wolf to a dog—I don’t know if one is better than the other; they’re just different,” Heinrich muses. “Does that mean it has more value than something that’s microscopic? It takes all [species] to make it all function, so it’s a major problem when pieces of the puzzle are removed.”

Tanya Heinrich

Photo by Mark Thalman

It’s global, it’s local—it’s all important.

Heinrich fell in love with meadowfoam about 10 years ago. It was actually the Exxon Valdez oil spill that led her to protest against destruction of the environment. Out of that, she hooked up with the California Native Plant Society and was introduced to the microcosmic world of vernal pools, where meadowfoam plants can live hand-in-hand with fairy shrimp.

“They look like the period at the end of a sentence … and yet it was swimming around in there,” she said with the awe of someone who’s just learned how babies are made.

But it was not the fairy shrimp that won Heinrich’s heart. It just as easily could have been, she acknowledges, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or another ecological treasure that caught her attention.

She saw joining the Sierra Club—which sent her to a conference in Cairo as its representative—as an educational experience more than anything: “Why are species becoming extinct?” (The obvious answer, she says, is growth—of humans, and of the structures it takes to contain them.)

Heinrich, a single mother, reined in her involvement as her children reached their teen years. “I just stopped all of my environmental activism.”

Now, the kids are grown and she’s bought a computer and turned her son’s old bedroom into an office. Part of it is devoted to quilting supplies, the other to researching meadowfoam. It’s a bit of a contrast for a school secretary-by-day who’s dressed in a strawberry-emblazoned jumper and matching slippers.

But Heinrich is very serious, and very smart. “I’m starting back where I began again,” she said, and a lot of today’s talk about development-quenching meadowfoam sounds like déjà vu from 1995, when the same fight was fought. “Greed bends all truth,” she likes to say. “That’s really the driving force.”

There are others in the intimate circle of meadowfoam lovers. Heinrich keeps in touch with a team of botanists from Victoria, B.C., who regularly travel to Butte County to check on the plant. Biologists at Chico State University keep an eye on the wetland species and write scholarly articles about it.

Heinrich worries, like a protective mother, about what could happen to the little flowers if people get too frustrated with them and their power to halt development in its tracks. She’s reluctant to point out stands of the plants, and is glad that even experts have to look twice to distinguish the common subspecies from the endangered one. “I’m not even sure myself,” she says. “I don’t want people to know too much.”

She said that, beyond the intrinsic worth of the plant, “this wild species that we have here is extremely valuable.” In Oregon and other places, a domesticated type of meadowfoam—Limnanthes alba—is farmed commercially for its oil, which can be used as a lubricant or find a place in cosmetics or other products, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. After harvest, the leftover plants don’t have to be burned like other crops, protecting air quality.

The endangered Butte County variety is a different subspecies, but Heinrich believes commercial growers will one day turn to the waxy little plant for its genetic resources. “We have the wild one right here. They may not need it today, but one day they may need some little aspect from our wild plant to make theirs more disease-resistant.”

Until more people wake up to that idea, Heinrich says, she’ll do her part to help save Limnanthes floccosa ssp. Californica.

“We are crowding out the natural environment,” she said. “You cannot just do one thing, so we need to be very, very careful in all of the decisions that we make. It’s better to err on the side of conservation.

“We’re so lucky to live in Chico. People live here so long that they’ve lost their perspective" on how much they have to protect, she said.