Ynés E. J. Mexia (1870-1938)

By Salem S. Hunter, Tristen J. Pasternak, Amanda M. Chandler

Oct 13 2022

A social worker and Sierra Club member at the time, Ynés Mexia was swayed toward the botanical realm in her early fifties after moving from Mexico to attend the University of California Berkeley in 1921. Despite having what some might consider a later start in the field, she was in no way hindered from greatly contributing to natural history collections in her role as the first Mexican-American female botanist. Her first collecting trip (in Sinaloa, Mexico) welcomed her with fractured ribs from a cliff fall, after which she continued to avidly collect on her own for the remainder of the trip. She then set her sights north to explore the flora of Alaska’s Mount McKinley (Denali), the largest mountain peak in North America (Davis 2009, NPS 2021, Women in Exploration 2021). The bulk of Mexia’s collecting endeavors were spent in South America, where she traveled with two indígenas guides by canoe along the Amazon River to its point of origin in the Andes and collected somewhere around 65,000 specimens in the timespan of nearly three years (McMillin 2019).
Ynés became well-respected in her relatively short time (13 years) studying botany, and achieved such notoriety without holding traditionally coveted academia merits, such as a bachelor’s degree. Both South America and Mexico would see her once again for collecting trips, following the 1932 publication of a book featuring her Brazilian fern collections. As an active member dedicated to the protection of redwood forests, Ynés made regular written contributions for the Sierra Club. She also wrote impactful personal encounters of her collecting trips, in which she expressed that any collections made were second priority to her need to fulfill a sense of adventure via exploration of the natural world (Davis 2009, NPS 2021, Women in Exploration 2021).
Though many of Mexia’s collecting trips were focused on vascular plants, her curiosity surrounding the living world also prompted her to collect cryptogams (mainly ferns and lichens), insects, and small animals during her expeditions. Over 50 taxa have been named after her, including the moss, Campylopus mexiae, featured among the specimens shown here. While she preferred to travel alone, Ynés sometimes connected with people of Indigenous groups for guidance and was a known advocate for Indigenous rights (NPS 2021). Passing in 1938 following her final collecting trip in Mexico, Mexia’s funds were put toward redwood conservation efforts and setting up her collections manager (Nina Floy Bracelin) for an assistantship with prominent botanist Alice Eastwood. She is remembered for her boundary-pushing sense of adventure, alongside the 145,000+ collections made during her 13 years as a botanist that are still actively referenced today (Davis 2009, NPS 2021).

Davis, K. 2009. At Home in the Wild: An Exploration of the Life and Work of Ynés Mexia. The Jepson Globe 19(3): 3-5.

McMillin, L. 2019. Three Thousand Miles up the Amazon. New York Botanical Garden’s The Hand Lens. Retrieved 3 Oct 2022, from: http://sweetgum.nybg.org/science/the-hand-lens/explore/narratives-details/?irn=7130.

National Park Service. 27 September 2021. Ynés Mexia. Retrieved 3 Oct 2022, from: https://www.nps.gov/people/ynes-mexia.htm.

Women in Exploration. 2021. Ynés Mexia. Timeline Stories. Retrieved 3 Oct 2002, from: https://www.womeninexploration.org/timeline/ynes-mexia/.