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Botanist's 2nd Career as Pied Piper of the Jungle

June 17, 1988|LYNN SIMROSS | Times Staff Writer

Mildred Mathias doesn't care much for formal portraits of herself. A world-renowned botanist, horticulturist and conservationist, she is ranked among the top scientists in her fields. So lofty is her academic reputation that almost a dozen flowers are named after her around the world.

But she much prefers more casual portraits, taken in the jungles of the Amazon, the mountains of South and Central America or the cloud forests of Costa Rica, with their brilliant green and red quetzal birds.

Pied Piper of the Jungle

One image in particular seems to capture her best. It was taken last year at a national park in Costa Rica and shows Mathias, handsome and silver-haired, grinning from under a blue canvas hat on which is perched a scarlet macaw named Lapa.

It's all in keeping with Mathias' second career--one that is drawing her a public following far greater than any she could have expected in the groves of academe. At 81, after a distinguished 27-year career as a botany professor at UCLA, Mildred Mathias has become a sort of Pied Piper of the jungles.

On Tuesday, Mathias begins her 12th tour of the Peruvian Amazon, where she first did field work in 1959 in conjunction with the UCLA department of pharmacology, collecting plants that might be used for medicinal purposes.

She's not going to Africa this year, where she did 20 years of field work, or to New Zealand, Australia or New Guinea, where she also has conducted natural history tours. But on Aug. 7, she will co-lead a nature tour group on a 20-day tour of China, highlighted by a trip to the Wolong Panda Reserve.

Dozens of her followers will travel with her. "Botany is not the greatest love of my life," said one, Louise Harris, a Santa Monica audio-visual consultant. "But I don't care where Mildred is going, I'll go. I will follow her to the ends of the Earth. It is phenomenal to go on a nature walk with this woman."

Harris and many of Mathias' disciples have taken the same trip with her up to five years in a row. Since she began leading tours for UCLA Extension 14 years ago, Mathias has guided more than 1,000 non-scientists through the jungles, mountains and rain forests of Latin America, to the Galapagos Islands and to observe the mountain gorillas of Rwanda in East Africa.

"She is a fantastic character and an outstanding scientist with a brilliant record," said Lincoln Constance, botanist emeritus at UC Berkeley. "She wins another award about once a month. If we were living in the British Empire, she'd be a Dame."

"Not many people just run off to Borneo, but Mildred does," said Harlan Lewis, retired chairman of the UCLA botany department, where Mathias once served as his vice chairman. "Very often when I've been traveling in out of the way places, like Bulgaria, the only person's name they know is Mildred Mathias."

Bored With Retirement

Sitting in her office at the UCLA botany building, a cluttered tiny corner room that is up two flights of stairs and behind the library, Mathias confessed to being bored with retirement. "I wouldn't want to sit at home playing bridge," she said, "and I wouldn't want to live somewhere where there were no young people."

But where she goes, even some young people might fear to tread. "Mildred can outwalk and outtalk anybody a third of her age," said Jane Marshall, a landscape designer from Malibu who has been on two of Mathias' trips to Peru and one to Costa Rica. "People are dropping like flies and she continues on. Her energy is incredible."

Marshall, who uses Mathias' book "Color for the Landscape" in her work, is already planning to sign up for Mathias' next Costa Rican tour, in January or February of 1989. "There are maybe 300 people in the world who have this kind of knowledge," Marshall said, "and she stands out from all of those."

Marshall told a story about hiking in the Andes with Mathias during a recent tour. "Here we were 13,000 feet up in the Andes on that last trip to Peru," she said. "It was snowing and she wasn't paying any attention to it. She was pointing out pin cushion plants that were growing there, well above the timber line. She has never lost that sense of wonder, and of loving what she does."

Mathias' interests aren't limited to mountains or the tropics. In a recent two-month period, she led a tour of the Historic District of Savannah, Ga., and the plantation gardens near Charleston, S.C.; appeared with the Nature Conservancy on Santa Cruz Island to rededicate it as a special reserve; traveled to San Francisco for the premiere of a movie on research in the tropics, attended seminars in Sacramento, Miami and Phoenix, and gave a symposium for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power on drought tolerance.

A Special Place

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