Socratic wisdom

Things to do in Northern California: Hike Mt. Tamalpais with a plant expert

Plant lovers understand the importance of details. They're the basis of botanical wisdom. To distinguish a blue blossom ceanothus from a musk bush, for example, look for ridges on the plants' stems.

So a hike with Wilma Follette, who has been leading Native Plant Society excursions on Mt. Tamalpais for 29 years, has a three-steps-and-stop kind of rhythm. The 81-year-old amateur botanist is invariably distracted before getting far.

On this spring day, she and a group of 24 ― California Native Plant Society members and a handful of others ― are searching for rare Mt. Tam red maids. We spot mission bells, Mt. Tam manzanita, and Oakland star tulip. But no red maids.

We forge on. Follette suddenly stops and points at a bunch of chain ferns. "Right there used to be water hemlock," she says. "Do you know the difference between water hemlock and the plant fed to Socrates?" The group includes two science professors, an astrophysicist, and an entomologist. But no one knows the answer.

"The one on Mt. Tam is worse!" Follette cries. The California species is, in fact, the deadliest native plant in the state. It's an unforgettable detail ― and an answer Socrates would appreciate. For hike information, visit the website of the Marin Chapter of the California Native Plant Society ( or call 415/332-4048.

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