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THE REAL DIRT ON: Ynés Mexía: A Short (but Impressive!) Career in Botany

Ynés Mexía

By Susan Krzywicki.

There seems to be no end to the fascinating characters that have contributed to our state’s botanical and horticultural history. Meet another famous botanist with California connections: Ynés Enriquetta Julietta Mexía. She was born in Washington, D.C., in 1870, to Mexican diplomat General Enrique A. Mexía and Sarah R. Wilmer. Early life was eventful: her parents divorced and she moved to Texas with her mother and six older siblings. As a young woman, Ynés wanted to be a nun, but her father's will stated that if she did so, she would be disinherited. She married twice: her first husband died and she divorced the second one.

52: Bit by the Botany Bug

Ynés’ interest in botanizing began in 1922 when she joined an expedition led by E. L. Furlong, a Berkeley paleontologist. She took classes at UC Berkeley and took a Flowering Plants class with Stanford professor LeRoy Abrams at the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove in 1925. Ynés must have caught the bug bad because she soon accompanied Stanford botanist Roxana Ferris on a botanical collecting trip to what was described as “western Mexico,” which may have been Baja California. Over the next thirteen years, she made expeditions to remote patches of Mexico, Alaska, and South America. She collected for both UC Berkeley and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

145,000: Individual Specimens

Ynés’ claim to fame: collecting approximately 145,000 individual specimens, 500 of which were new species. In addition to gathering specimens, she wrote numerous articles detailing her adventures while exploring the Amazon and other remote areas.

Ynés was a member of the California Botanical Society, the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and the Sociedad Geográfica de Lima in Peru, as well as a life member of the California Academy of Sciences. She wrote countless articles for magazines, books, and scholarly journals. One of her pieces, which described her solo travels over two years along the Amazon, was published as "Three Thousand Miles up the Amazon" in the Sierra Club Bulletin in 1933.

50: Species Named for Ynés

In 1938, Ynés became ill while on a collecting expedition in Oaxaca, Mexico, and unwillingly returned home to Berkeley. She had lung cancer and her collecting days were over, but she worked on preserving her legacy and specimens. Before dying on July 12, 1938, she and her helper, Nina Floy Bracelin, sorted, catalogued, mounted, and donated her specimen collection. The scientific community honored Ynés by naming 50 species after her, including Mexianthus mexicanus, a single Mexican species in this genus within the sunflower family.

To learn more about Ynés Mexía, look for Durlynn Anema’s biography, Ynes Mexia: Botanist and Adventurer (ISBN: 1931798672).

Image credit: California Academy of Sciences

Susan Krzywicki is a native plant landscape designer in San Diego. She has been the first Horticulture Program Director for the California Native Plant Society, as well as chair of the San Diego Surfrider Foundation Ocean Friendly Gardens Committee and is on the board of San Diego Canyonlands.

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