Exploring the science of plants, from the field to the lab

Late Bloomer: The Short, Prolific Career of Ynes Mexia

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on February 26, 2015 by Elizabeth Kiernan

Elizabeth Kiernan is a project coordinator for the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at The New York Botanical Garden. She is currently working on a program to document the biodiversity of the Amazonian region of South America.

A photograph of Ynes Mexia in the field
A photograph of Ynes Mexia in the field

Ynes Mexia, a Mexican-American botanical collector and explorer who began her career in 1925, became the most accomplished female botanical collector of her time both in terms of the number of plant specimens she collected and the miles she traveled on her expeditions. Although she began in her mid-50s and her career was relatively short, she was able to collect an incredible 145,000 specimens. Of those, 500 were new species, and 50 were named in her honor. The William and Lynda Steere Herbarium is fortunate to have many of her specimens.

Mexia was born on May 24, 1870, in Washington, D.C. There are varying accounts of Mexia’s early life, but it is agreed that it was somewhat tumultuous. When she was very young, her parents divorced. Her father returned to his native Mexico, and her mother moved the family to Texas. She was married twice: her first marriage ended abruptly with her husband’s death, and her second marriage ended in divorce. After her divorce, she moved from Mexico City to San Francisco and became involved in social work. She also became an active member of the Sierra Club, which motivated her to attend the University of California, Berkeley.

Her interest in botanical collecting began in 1922 when she joined an expedition led by E. L. Furlong, a Berkeley paleontologist. She enrolled in a course on flowering plants at the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California, and soon after embarked on her first botanical exploration trip to Mexico with Stanford botanist Roxana Ferris. Once in Mexico, Mexia decided that she could accomplish more on her own and abandoned the group, traveling the country for two years and collecting more than 1,500 specimens. She made three additional expeditions to Mexico and collected throughout South America in remote areas of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. She also collected in Alaska and other areas of the United States.

One of the highlights of her explorations was canoeing the Amazon River from its delta to its source in the Andes, covering nearly 3,000 miles in two and a half years. Her specimens were widely distributed to herbaria throughout the U.S. and Western Europe. In addition to collecting, Mexia wrote articles and gave lectures describing her adventures and travels. She died of lung cancer in 1938.

Credit is due to Nina Floy Bracelin, affectionately known as Bracie, who prepared Mexia’s specimens for herbaria. She worked diligently to label the specimens, sending sets to specialists so their species could be determined and distributing the duplicates. Mexia was said to be more interested in exploration and discovery rather than preparing her specimens, but her legacy lives on through those preserved botanical collections, including those that can be found today in the Steere Herbarium.

Saurauia mexiae Steere Herbarium type specimen
This specimen of Saurauia mexiae in the Steere Herbarium was collected by Mexia and named in her honor. It is a “type specimen,” which is a specimen selected to serve as a reference point when a plant species is first named.

For more information, please refer to:

“Mexia, Ynes Enriquetta Julietta (1870-1938).” JSTOR Global Plants. http://plants.jstor.org/stable/10.5555/al.ap.person.bm000033443

Bracelin, N. Floy. 1982. “The Ynes Mexia Botanical Collections,” an oral history conducted in 1965 and 1967 by Anetta Carter. Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. http://archive.org/stream/ynsmexabotan00bracrich/ynsmexabotan00bracrich_djvu.txt

Radcliffe, Jane. “Ynes Mexia (1870-1938): Biographical Sketch.” California Academy of Sciences, http://researcharchive.calacademy.org/research/library/special/bios/Mexia.pdf

“Ynes Mexia Collection, 1918-1966.” University and Jepson Herbaria Archives, University of California, Berkeley. http://ucjeps.berkeley.edu/archon/?p=collections/findingaid&id=77&q=&rootcontentid=7350


Didi said:

What a wonderful article about a wonderful woman that embarked on a journey that allows scientists today to know about herbal species they probably wouldn’t have known otherwise, if it wouldn’t have been for the travels and discoveries of Ynes Enriquetta!

Scott Mori said:

A wonderful article about one of the first female botanical botanical explorers. Another is Margaret Mee. Although Margaret did not collect plants, she painted many she observed in the Brazilian Amazon. Today there are numerous female botanists working in the New World tropics, some of which must have been inspired by Y. Mexia and M. Mee.