Can’t Live Without ‘Em: Butte County Meadowfoam

A weekly homage to endangered species, large and small.


Who doesn’t like to hear that something’s “all natural?” Today, people spend big bucks for organic produce and herbal remedies because they’ve come to value items produced without engineered chemicals or cleaners.

One of the most commonly used ingredients in natural cosmetic products comes from meadowfoam—a small wildflower native to the western coastal regions of North America. Popular skin care companies like JAQUA and Revlon use oil from meadowfoam seeds to produce “age defying creams” and body lotions. A cultivar (group selected based on desired traits) of meadowfoam is actually farmed and cultivated specifically for such commercial uses.

However, one of the subspecies—the Butte County meadowfoam— is an endangered species. In 1992, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) added the plant to the federal endangered species list.

What Good Are They?

Of course, the endangered meadowfoam is different than the one farmed commercially. Pastel white pedals and a hairy stem help distinguish the Butte County subspecies, which is part of a unique ecosystem. The flowers grow in seasonal streams and vernal pools that are distinctive to central California. Vernal pools temporarily fill with water during rainy season. Because they dry in the summer, fish typically can’t live in them making them ideal breeding habit for amphibians, insects and flowers. The loss of any species in these special environments might prove harmful for other inhabitants like the endangered vernal pool fairy shrimp.

Additionally, without wild strains of meadowfoam, scientists would have no way to study and combat the effects of viruses or genetic defects on the cultivated meadowfoam population, which is so crucial to the cosmetics industry.

The oil from meadowfoam seeds is potentially valuable for other industries as well including use as candle wax, fuel, lubricant and even detergent.

Unfortunately, development has restricted the small, but serviceable flowers to a narrow 25-mile range in central California.  Here, highway construction, new buildings and draining of vernal pools continue to reduce suitable habitat for the meadowfoam.

Still, support from conservationists in the state and abroad has helped managed the dwindling population. And FWS and the State of California are acquiring vernal pool habitat to protect the species. Hopefully, the pursuit of profit won’t undermine the incalculable conservation value of these beautiful blossoms.

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