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

Lisa Taggart,  – September 15, 2004

Plant lovers understand the importance of details. They’rethe basis of botanical wisdom. To distinguish a blue blossomceanothus from a musk bush, for example, look for ridges on theplants’ stems.

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

On this spring day, she and a group of 24 ― CaliforniaNative Plant Society members and a handful of others ― aresearching 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 ofchain ferns. “Right there used to be water hemlock,” she says. “Doyou know the difference between water hemlock and the plant fed toSocrates?” The group includes two science professors, anastrophysicist, and an entomologist. But no one knows theanswer.

“The one on Mt. Tam is worse!” Follette cries. The Californiaspecies is, in fact, the deadliest native plant in the state. It’san unforgettable detail ― and an answer Socrates wouldappreciate. For hike information, visit the website of the MarinChapter of the California Native Plant Society ( call 415/332-4048.

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