Ynés Mexia: Many Don’t Realize How Much We Owe To This Botanist

Identifying and mapping the local flora and fauna is the first step towards the conservation of biodiversity. We owe our present knowledge of the Eath’s biodiversity to the countless naturalists, zoologists, and botanists who painstakingly collect, catalog, and classify the unique specimens from every environmental niche. Some are even prepared to die for the sake of their craft travelling through treacherous terrains and accidentally eating poisonous berries- like Ynés Mexia. 

The Significance and Importance of Ynés Mexia

Who Is Ynés Mexia? 

PC: UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

Renowned Mexican American botanist and explorer, Ynés Mexia gained fame when she went to Sinaloa, Mexico (which some might recognise if you’re a fan of Narcos or Pablo Escobar). She mapped the rich plant biodiversity of North and South America, collecting more than 150,000 specimens and described about 500 new species, 50 of which she got the name Ynes Mexia! 

Ynés Enriquetta Julietta Mexia of Mexican descent had a turbulent childhood and moved often. She was born on May 24, 1870, in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., to a Mexican diplomat Enrique Mexia and her mother Sarah Wilmer Mexia. Her parents divorced when she was three years old. Her mother moved to Texas with Ynés and her step-siblings. An introverted child, she spent much of her time reading, writing indoors but who knew this introvert would love to explore the outdoors! Upon finishing her private schooling in Philadelphia and Canada she moved to Mexico to help on her father’s ranch and took over the management after he passed away in 1896.

On an expedition to Mexico, which would become her final collection trip, she got very sick. She came back to San Francisco and was diagnosed with lung cancer. She passed away in 1939.

Ynés Mexia’s Turbulent Marriages Led Her To San Francisco 

Ynés Mexia was widowed when she lost her first husband right after they wed. Then she divorced her second husband after he left her financially broke! Alas with all the tremendous changes in her life she suffered from mental health problems and took to San Francisco to seek treatment and to make a new life for herself.  Here she spent her time working as a social worker but soon discovered her passion for environmentalism. 

Many personal issues were seeded deep within every marriage. While living in Mexico Ynes wed a Spanish- German merchant Herman E. de Laue in 1898. Soon she found herself embroiled in a legal battle over her father’s will with his mistress. Eventually, she won in court and legally found a way to divide the inheritance between herself and her stepsisters. Soon after her husband passed away in 1904. She married again at the age of 38 to Augustin A. de Raygados, which turned out to be an ill-fated choice. Her husband mismanaged her poultry business, he financially ruined her family ranch. which she started on her property in Mexico City after almost 30 years living in Mexico. 

Suffice to say, the poor woman suffered from a nervous breakdown and went to San Francisco to receive medical treatment in 1908 and make a new life for herself. She started her time in San Francisco as a twice-divorced social worker but soon discovered her passion for environmentalism. 

Many don’t know that it was here that she began her scientific career late in life, after recovering from mental health issues. While her second husband continued to live in Mexico, and they eventually separated, San Fransicso offered a chance to go on excursions into the mountains of Northern California with the Sierra Club and fell in love with the redwoods, the birds, the plants, and the quiet. 

Ynés Mexia was an early member of the Sierra Club and Save the Redwoods League which gave her the platform to go on solo trips on many excursions through California and to the redwood forests.  Mexia became incredibly active in efforts to save the redwood trees. She once stated the following after hearing of the clear cutting of redwood forests across Northern California, “I have been much distressed to hear cutting has been going on in Montgomery Grove, I am heartily in sympathy of any effort to save these trees.”

Ynes was so in love with nature that she would have done the same if she went to Antarctica for treatment! 

New Life and Second Chances in California

PC: California Academy of Sciences

Eventually, Ynés got a chance to make a fresh start in California. Mexia was a social worker before entering the University of California in 1921 as a special student at the age of 51. There she enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley and developed an enthusiasm for botany. 

As a social worker, Ynes joined the Sierra Club that took her to the mountains and forests of Northern California that she quickly fell in love with. She was involved in the conservation program of the Redwoods. She found mental and physical solace by interacting with nature.

As a young 51 year old student, she kept the same enthusiasm and her dedication quickly became her hallmark. Ynes became friends with the botanist Alice Eastwood, from the California Academy of Sciences, who became her mentor. Ynés accompanied Alice in her collection trips to different parts of California.

Becoming An Avid Botanist

PC: NY Botanical Garden 

Ynes joined fellow botanist Roxana Stinchfeld Ferris of Stanford University on an expedition to Sinaloa, Mexico (where drug lords Pablo Escobar and the Cali Cartel grew their resources)  in 1925.  This was her first major expedition, and despite being injured during the trip Ynés brought back 500 new plant samples, including Mimosa mexiae, the first plant named in her honor. Her success on the trip established her reputation.

In 1925, Ynes began travelling to remote locations in South and Central America and Alaska. 

Ynes Mexia was becoming a renowned American botanical collector as she took her first plant collecting trip to Mexico on a group trip with Stanford. Interestingly, she quickly found out that she preferred to work alone. Mexia was known to break off from the group and began collecting independently. During this excursion she collected over 1,500 specimens.  One of them, Mimosa Mexiae, became the first of many plants named after her and the American botanical collector suddenly received the funding she needed and at 56 years old she started doing expeditions on her own! 

Her reputation and drive as the first Mexican American female botanist grew and she began to be sponsored more.  This was the beginning of a 13 year career in botany. She once said: 

“My dryers get all filled up and still numbers of plants sit and look at me and announce that they are waiting to be collected. it is terribly trying to a greedy collector like myself.”  

Thanks to her travels and determination, before she knew it, she had collected some 150,000 botanical specimens, finding one new genus of Compositae (Mexianthus mexicanus) and more than 500 new species of plants, many of which were named in her honour. 

In 1928, Following an expedition to Mt. Kinley in Alaska, Ynes became the first person to collect samples from the region from what is now the Denali National Park. In later years she would go on plant collection trips to the South American countries of Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, and Argentina between 1929–1932 and1934–1937. The Mexican-American botanist was known for her abilities to travel long distances, through difficult terrains, and to the remotest areas, sometimes on foot, boats, horses, or whatever mode of carriage was available just to collect some of the rarest plant specimens. 

Almost Dying in Ecuador

On a difficult trip to the Chiles-Cerro Negro Volcanic complex at the border of Colombia and Ecuador, she finally found the elusive palm tree that she was looking for after climbing a steep path. Later while describing her experience she wrote in the Sierra Club Bulletin:

“Then we started on the long journey back; very tired, very hot, very dirty, but very happy..”

During the mid-1930s, Ynes Mexia set off from her base in Quito, Ecuador, on a mission. Ynes had plans to head to Chiles, a remote volcano on the Colombian border, where it was rumored the huge, elusive wax palm grew. The Mexican-Ameican powerhouse knew what the tree looked like from the descriptions of early travelers: slender, elegant, tall, sometimes towering as high as 200 feet. Fellow American botanists had a keen interest in the palm because they knew it grew at high altitudes and tolerated extreme cold. It was also believed that this particular plant could potentially adapt to more northern climes—but no one had brought a specimen back to the U.S – a challenge fully accepted! 

With an assistant and sponsorship money, Ynes headed by train north from Quito to Ibarra, by car to the high grasslands at Ángel, and on to Tulcán, a town on the northern border of Ecuador, where she secured a local guide and horses to take her on a rough trail to the distant mountain slope. Acting like a typically passionate botanist, she wanted to go on this rough trail but the muddy grounds, bushwhacked through steep ravines, cowered under sideways rain didn’t allow her to continue. She retired to an emergency camp in a bog but the same day, the horse rolled over and became inextricably stuck in muck, and an earthquake struck in the middle of the night. 

Not only was the trip challenging and a feat that no-one other than her would take, but Mexia would also face even more troubles when she accidentally ate poisonous berries and became wracked with pain. Having the indigenous people around proved life-saving as they stuck a chicken feather down her throat to coax the berries up again. This saved her life! 

Back to being alive, Mexia was not only undaunted but reasonably content. As horses carried her botanical equipment, she hopped between rocks and mounds of grass, collecting interesting plants as she travelled. Some of these specimens that would make their way to the finest institutions in the United States, where she lived, and beyond. 

One horrid day of negotiating a hair-raising steep path pioneered by the region’s indigenous inhabitants, Mexia turned around a carved bend and saw, at last, her grail. A noble wax palm rose out of the earth, its spray of fronds soaring over the rest of the canopy with its white trunk stark against the rest of the vegetation. 

“I photographed the great spathe and flower-cluster, so heavy the two men could hardly lift it; made measurements and notes; and took portions of the great arching fronds,” she would go on to write in the Sierra Club Bulletin. It was a significant botanical find. “Then we started on the long journey back, arriving after dark, very tired, very hot, very dirty, but very happy….” 

Ynés Mexia: The Significant For Today’s Generation

PC: Google 

Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis, a professor of the history of biological sciences at the University of Florida was once  interviewed saying: 

“Women were actively dissuaded from doing that kind of work, because it was considered unfeminine and dangerous…..You actually have to camp out, you couldn’t wash your hair, you were living a kind of rough life, and that could be dangerous…. But Mexia had agency. She was doing exactly the work that she wanted to do.” 

At a time where fieldwork was considered an unfeminine activity at the time, yet Ynés displayed uncharacteristic courage and independence that made her face all the challenges. The words above capture her scientific spirit, determination, and commitment to the cause which she was greater than the hardships she faced. 

This is the same woman who in the 1900s (when sanitary pads and hand sanitizer didn’t exist) famously traveled on a steamship, a canoe, and a balsa raft along the Amazon river all in one day to get to a collection site! 

So we owe a lot to one of the most prolific and renowned plant collectors who over the course of her career somehow manually collected nearly 150,000 specimens, described about 500 new species, and discovered two new genera! A remarkable 50 plants were given her name, but more importantly, today researchers still actively use her collections, which reside in museums and universities all over the world! 

Mexia was also unusual for an American botanical collector during that era because she started her career when most people think of retirement. Next, she was of Mexican heritage and suffered some prejudice in a largely white field, and she began till all AFTER being admitted for mental problems – a true hero! 

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