Seeking specimens at the ends of the Earth.
Imagine traveling from the tips of icy mountains in Alaska to the feet of erupting volcanoes in Columbia… Imagine traversing the vast Amazon River on a simple canoe, traveling for days on horseback, and sleeping under the stars.
Although this may sound like a movie, it was actually the life of Ynés Mexía, who worked as a botanist in the 1920s. She began studying botany, the scientific study of plants, at the age of 51, and against all odds went on to become a very successful plant collector and the first Mexican American female botanist.
"Ynés was an incredibly prolific botanist who collected 150,000 specimens, discovered 500 new species and 2 new genera in her short 13-year career. An astounding 50 plants are named in her honor!"
Watch the video or continue reading the transcript below!
Called to the Redwoods
Mexía was born in 1870 in Washington D.C. where her father was a Mexican diplomat. When she was nine years old, her family moved back to Mexico where she was sent to a boarding school.
After her schooling, she took over her father’s business for several years. Her early life was filled with struggles, including two difficult marriages and severe physical and mental health issues. She moved to San Francisco because of her medical needs, and it was there that she fell in love with nature and found her calling.
Nowadays, we hear a lot about the pressing need for environmental conservation and protection. But did you know the environmental conservation movement has been growing behind-the-scenes for decades? It began in California in the early 1900s, as industrial expansion threatened natural habitats.
Ynés Mexía was an early member of the movement, and became active in preserving California’s redwood forests and national parks. When she first moved to San Francisco, she joined the Sierra Club and Save the Redwoods League and found immense solace exploring northern California’s landscape and biodiversity.
Her work in conservation inspired her to begin studying botany, and at the age of 51, she enrolled at UC Berkeley where she developed a passion for collecting and categorizing plants.
First Class Adventure
She was the first Mexican American female botanist at a time where botanical field work was considered unfeminine and dangerous. But Mexía refused to believe that a botany expedition was impossible for a woman.
She undertook her first plant-collecting expedition to Sinaloa, Mexico, and spent two years exploring the country, collecting more than 1500 specimens. Ynés traveled all over the Americas through many different regions and climates. On her expedition to Mt. McKinley in Alaska she became the first person to ever collect samples from what is now called Denali National Park.
But why is it so important to understand what plants grow in different climates? Of course it’s really exciting to discover a brand new plant species, but that’s not all that Mexía was after. In her work categorizing plants, and carefully documenting when and where she found them, she was also collecting vital knowledge about the ecosystem of the region.
An ecosystem is a delicate, tangled web of all the plants, animals, and other organisms that live in a particular physical environment. All these components are connected through flows of energy and nutrients, like when plants consume sunlight and animals consume those plants and then those animals die and are decomposed back into the soil.
An important part of understanding how an ecosystem works, and therefore how to protect it, is to identify that ecosystem’s keystone species. The keystone species is an organism that helps maintain the balance and cycle of the ecosystem. But you have to catalogue all the organisms in a system before you can really start to understand how they all interact with each other. That’s where explorers like Ynés Mexía come in.
Ynés was an incredibly prolific botanist who collected 150,000 specimens, discovered 500 new species and 2 new genera in her short 13-year career. An astounding 50 plants are named in her honor!
A lot of biology and botany is exploration– so when Ynés set out to search for new plants, she probably didn’t have any specific scientific questions in mind.
However, by collecting so many specimens, Ynés gave other scientists the ability to understand what kinds of plants grow in different kinds of environments, and they were able to make hypotheses about how those ecosystems function. In fact, modern scientists are still studying some of Mexia’s samples, learning about ecosystems in the 1920s and how they’ve changed over the past 100 years.
Adventurer Like No Other
Ynés Mexía was a pioneer. She was an adventurer like no other, traveling long distances, plowing through dangerous terrain and relishing in the discomfort of her journeys for the pleasure of collecting rare specimens. She famously traversed the Amazon River on a canoe from its delta to its source in the Andes, covering nearly 3,000 miles to get to a collection site. Her unwavering commitment to her mission led her to become a celebrated botanist whose specimens are studied to this day.
Traveling from icy mountains in Alaska to violent volcanoes in Colombia for the sake of scientific progress is rare; for a woman of color, over the age of 50, in the early 1900s, it was unheard of. Regardless, she persevered, and her tireless collection, preservation, and documentation of biodiversity is a huge inspiration. As the environmental crisis increasingly affects our lives, Mexia’s legacy is now more important than ever. It reminds us to persist in the face of adversity and to stop at nothing to accomplish our mission. Even if that means going to the ends of the earth.
Photos courtesy of NY Botanical Garden and California Academy of Sciences
Adapted with permission from "Adventure, Botany, and Conservation: The ABCs of Ynés Mexia"from Harvard Science in the News
Written by Manasvi Verma
Edited by Madelyn Leembruggen, Lindsey Oberhelman, Caroline Martin
Illustrations and portrait by Lindsey Oberhelman
Sources and additional readings:
Ynes Mexia by National Park Services
Three Thousand Miles up the Amazon by New York Botanical Garden
How Finding Rare Plants Saved Ynes Mexia’s Life by Outside Magazine
Ynes Mexia by Unladylike2020
Follow in Ynés' footsteps and explore the natural world!
Observe (2 hours): Print your Botany Explorer's Guide and set out on a botanical expedition.
Investigate (0.5-2 hours): Check out the list of plants named after Ynés and see what you can learn about them on the internet.