How Finding Rare Plants Saved Ynes Mexia's Life

After a mental-health breakdown, Mexia grew obsessed with plants in her fifties and became one of the early 20th century’s great botanical collectors

Over the course of her career, Mexia collected nearly 150,000 specimens, described about 500 new species, and discovered two new genera. (Courtesy California Academy of Sciences)
Photo: Courtesy California Academy of Sciences botany

In the mid-1930s, Ynes Mexia, a renowned American botanical collector, set off from her base in Quito, Ecuador, on a mission. She hoped to reach Chiles, a remote volcano on the Colombian border, where it was rumored the huge, elusive wax palm grew. Mexia knew what the tree looked like from the descriptions of early travelers: slender, elegant, tall, sometimes towering as high as 200 feet. American botanists had a keen interest in the palm because they knew it grew at high altitudes and tolerated extreme cold. They believed it could potentially adapt to more northern climes—but no one had brought a specimen back to the U.S. 

With an assistant, Mexia traveled by rail north from Quito to Ibarra, by car to the high grasslands at Ángel, and on to Tulcán, a town on the northern border of Ecuador, where she secured a local guide and horses to take her on a rough trail to the distant mountain slope. The group wallowed in mud, bushwhacked through steep ravines, cowered under sideways rain, and was forced to make an emergency camp in a bog. A horse rolled over and became inextricably stuck in muck, and an earthquake struck in the middle of the night. At one point, Mexia accidentally ate poisonous berries and became wracked with pain. (Luckily, the indigenous people offered a remedy: sticking a chicken feather down her throat to coax the berries up again. It worked.) 

Despite the trip’s challenges, Mexia was not only undaunted but reasonably content. As horses carried her botanical equipment, she hopped between rocks and mounds of grass, collecting interesting plants as she went—specimens that would make their way to the finest institutions in the United States, where she lived, and beyond. 

One day, after negotiating a hair-raisingly steep path pioneered by the region’s indigenous inhabitants, Mexia rounded a bend and saw, at last, her grail. A noble wax palm rose out of the earth, its spray of fronds soaring over the rest of the canopy, its white trunk stark against the understory’s gloom. 

“I photographed the great spathe and flower-cluster, so heavy the two men could hardly lift it; made measurements and notes; and took portions of the great arching fronds,” she later wrote in the Sierra Club Bulletin. It was a significant botanical find. “Then we started on the long journey back, arriving after dark, very tired, very hot, very dirty, but very happy….” 

Mexia was one of the most prolific and renowned plant collectors of her time. Over the course of her career, she collected nearly 150,000 specimens, described about 500 new species, and discovered two new genera. A remarkable 50 plants were named in her honor. Today researchers still actively use her collections, which reside in museums and universities all over the world. Mexia was also unusual for an American botanical collector during that era. Not only was she a woman, she was also of Mexican heritage and suffered some prejudice in a largely white field, and she was older—she started her career in her mid-fifties.

“Women were actively dissuaded from doing that kind of work, because it was considered unfeminine and dangerous,” says Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis, a professor of the history of biological sciences at the University of Florida. “You actually have to camp out, you couldn’t wash your hair, you were living a kind of rough life, and that could be dangerous…. But Mexia had agency. She was doing exactly the work that she wanted to do.” 

Much of Mexia’s early life remains mysterious. She was born in 1870 in Washington, D.C., the daughter of a Mexican diplomat and the granddaughter of a Mexican general. Growing up, her family moved a lot, and young Ynes’s childhood was defined by isolation and loneliness. She found solace, however, going for long walks by herself in the countryside, spotting birds, and inspecting plants. Later she moved to Mexico, married, was widowed, and married again. 

In 1909, in her late thirties, she suffered a mental and physical breakdown that spurred her to move to San Francisco and seek medical care. (Her second husband continued to live in Mexico, and they eventually separated.) There she started going on excursions into the mountains of Northern California with the Sierra Club and fell in love with the redwoods, the birds, the plants, and the quiet. Eventually, she enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley in 1921 and was introduced to botany. 

At the age of 51, Mexia was an unusual college student, but the stares didn’t bother her. Slight in stature, she was cheerful and tough. She soon realized that her tolerance for solitude and love of the wild perfectly suited her to botanical collecting. After her first major expedition, to Sinaloa, Mexico, in 1925, she spent 13 years traveling from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, often shocking those she met because she was traveling solo, riding horseback with knickers, and preferring to sleep outside even when a bed was available. She was also refreshingly unassuming and frank. 

“A well-known collector and explorer stated very positively that ‘it was impossible for a woman to travel alone in Latin America,’” she wrote in an unpublished paper. “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,” she later explained in the Sierra Club Bulletin. “Well, why not?” 

Toward the end of her life, Mexia had made enough of a name for herself that she was often invited to lecture on her travels. Accounts of her trips appeared in botanical-society magazines and journals. She never even finished her bachelor’s degree, but botanists all over the world knew her name. 

In 1938, during an expedition to Mexico, Mexia became sick and weak, much to her impatience. She tried to travel on but eventually had to turn back and return to the United States, where she was diagnosed with lung cancer and died within a month at age 68. A devoted conservationist, she left much of her estate to the Save the Redwoods League and the Sierra Club. Obituaries and memorials filled the pages of newsletters and journals, extolling her contributions to the field. 

“All who knew Ynes Mexia could not fail to be impressed by her friendly unassuming spirit,” wrote William E. Colby, the secretary of the Sierra Club, in a memorial in the organization’s bulletin, “and by that rare courage which enabled her to travel, much of the time alone, in lands where few would dare to follow.” 

In the old photographs that remain from her years of collecting, Mexia almost always appears calm. In one, she sits on the rim of the Grand Canyon, legs dangling off a precipice. In others, she cross-country skis and snowshoes in long dresses or tiptoes across a log spanning a gaping chasm. Perhaps her face remained so serene because she knew these wide-open spaces—and their plants and denizens—had saved her life. 

Filed To: Nature / Science
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