By Nancy J. Farrier
Ynés Mexía was born in Washington DC in 1870. Her father was a Mexican diplomat and her mother was American. They moved often when she was a child and Ynés became very introverted. Her parents divorced and Ynés ended up in Mexico with her father, helping with his ranch and taking over after his death.
Ynés married twice. Her first husband died early and her second husband bankrupted her business at the ranch. She divorced and suffered a mental breakdown. She traveled to San Francisco to seek help and was encouraged to become involved with the Sierra Club and the Save the Redwoods movement because she had a love for the outdoors and for plants. Ynés hated seeing the beautiful trees destroyed.
At the age of 51, Ynés decided to get a degree in botany. She attended UC Berkeley where she developed a love of collecting and categorizing plants.
by Ynés Mexía
When she was 55, Ynés took her first trip to Mexico to collect plants. She traveled with a group from Stanford but soon realized she much preferred to travel alone. She left the group and collected over 1,500 specimens. Mimosa Mexiae, one of the plants she collected, was the first of many newly discovered plants that would be named after her.
A year later she received funding to continue her trips. She was the first Mexican American female botanist and as her reputation grew, so did her sponsorships. She traveled all over the American continents and was first to collect specimens from the area now known as Denali National Park in Alaska.
By Ynés Mexía
If Ynés needed a guide on her trips, she tried her best to find someone indigenous to guide her because their wealth of information and knowledge helped her in her studies and collections. She often slept outdoors on the ground, something unheard of for a woman in this era. She traveled by horse, by foot, and by canoe in her explorations.
Ynés once wrote: “A well-known collector and explorer stated very positively that ‘it was impossible for a woman to travel alone in Latin America.’ I decided that if I wanted to become better acquainted with the South American Continent the best way would be to make my way right across it.”
By Ynés Mexía
Ynés never shied from a challenge or turned back because she was a woman and could not continue. In her thirteen year career as a botanist and collector, she collected 145,000 specimens and identified 500 new species of plants, 50 of which were named after her. Mexianthus Robinson (Asteraceae) and Spulula Mains (Pucciniaceae) were two new genera she found.
While on an expedition to Mexico in 1938, Ynés became sick. She returned to the United States and found she had lung cancer. She died soon after at the age of 68. Much of her research benefits botanists today. Her careful collecting and labeling of plants, and her determination to go where women didn’t go, make her a remarkable woman of note. Here is a short, but very interesting, YouTube video about Ynés Mexía's work.
Have you ever heard of Ynés Mexía? It’s hard for me to imagine sleeping on the hard ground at my age, but she did that without complaint. What an amazing woman. What are your thoughts?