Ynes Mexia

“The Land of the Equator! There my

life-long shadow would dog my step no

longer, but, vanquished, would grovel

beneath my feet.”

Lots of accomplished women get their geek on early in life—but not all. Sometimes it takes a while to get going, or get inspired, or just get out of a cruddy situation. So lest you think that you have to be a spring chicken (whatever that means) to make a difference in this world, meet the daring adventuress Ynes Enriquetta Julietta Mexia, a plant-loving lady who didn’t start doing her thing until after she’d been alive for half a century.

Which isn’t to say the beginning of her life wasn’t interesting. Ynes was born in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C., in 1870 to Sarah Wilmer, an American woman, and General Enrique Mexia, a Mexican diplomat who also happened to be a philanderer with more than ten illegitimate children. After moving to Enrique’s family lands in Texas with her mother (who already had six children from a previous marriage), Ynes traveled far and wide for her education, attending excellent schools in Philadelphia and Ontario before finishing at St. Joseph’s Academy in Maryland. With her schooling complete, she moved to Mexico City to care for her ailing father in his large hacienda. After his death in 1896, Ynes married Herman Laue, only to be faced with her husband’s death a mere seven years later—years that she spent mostly defending her estate from illegitimate half-brothers.

But Ynes was intelligent and resourceful, and though the men in her life kept dying and the violent Mexican Revolution (which would claim the lives of some 1.5 million people) was right around the corner, she managed to set up a successful poultry and pet stock-raising business out of the hacienda. Ynes’s hustle must have been attractive because, in 1908, she married the much younger Augustin A. de Reygados—he was twenty-two and she was thirty-eight. But before you’re all “Get it, girl!” bear in mind that twenty-two-year-old males do not always make super-mature husbands, regardless of how attractive their youth may make them. Sure enough, while Ynes was in San Francisco being treated for a medical problem, Augustin managed to bankrupt her entire business. Even worse, revolutionaries were coming for her hacienda. Purposeless and penniless, Ynes ended up selling the estate for $25 an acre and, with the help and advice of her doctor, divorced ol’ money-wastin’ Augustin and set up a new home in San Francisco. It was a good idea, but a tough change: Ynes had faced a lot of loss in her relatively short life, and as a result she suffered a mental breakdown. She spent the better part of the next two decades in San Francisco working as a social worker while slowly recovering from her persistent feelings of worthlessness and emotional instability. As part of her recuperation, she began taking long hikes and nature walks with the Sierra Club—and that’s when Ynes realized, Holy fungi, I freaking love plants.

And so in 1921, fifty-one-year-old Ynes enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley to take classes in natural science and botany. Though she never graduated, Ynes made connections in the California botany circles and—after completing a course on flowering plants at the Hopkins Marine Station in 1925—headed out with the Stanford botanist Roxana “Roxy” Ferris on a two-month expedition to Mexico. Ynes’s knowledge of both Spanish and the Mexican countryside proved invaluable, and despite minor setbacks (like, you know, falling off a cliff and fracturing a few ribs) the two women returned to California with more than five hundred specimens, including a few plants previously undiscovered by scientists. One such example—Mimosa mexiae—would eventually bear Ynes’s name, leaving her satisfied in knowing that there would be “permanent exhibits under my name in the Herbaria of the world for all time to come.”

Discovering her purpose helped Ynes with even more than her depression. It helped her get in shape and gave her the courage to travel (alone as a woman in the 1920s) to the most obscure, remote parts of Mexico and South America. She basically became the lady Indiana Jones, only with less face melting and more plant collecting. Carrying seventy-five pounds of paper, a camera, and a typewriter, all used for drying and cataloguing specimens, Ynes traveled by train, boat, raft, mule, and even on foot into the jungle, where she followed indigenous guides called mozosand faced wild animals, harsh weather, and all kinds of other hardships—which sounds intense and scary, except that she loved (almost) every minute of it. In 1926 she returned to Mexico alone, rolling back into California twelve months later with thirty thousand specimens, fifty of which were previously unknown species, and even one brand-new genus of globelike flowers in the sunflower family, subsequently the Mexianthus, which she discovered up a forest trail in the volcanic mountains near Puerto Vallarta.

Yet because she felt she was more “a nature lover and a bit of an adventuress” than a scientist, Ynes enlisted the UC Berkeley herbology student Nina Floy Bracelin (“Bracie,” for short), whom she’d met at a “Six Trips Afield” extension course, to help beef up her lab skills. Ynes convinced her friend to assist her on the sly by curating samples that Ynes returned with and helping sell them to collectors, museums (like Chicago’s Field Museum), or universities (like Harvard’s Gray Herbarium and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor’s Botanical Garden). Thanks to Berkeley and Bracie (who soon after was hired as an official herbarium assistant), Ynes was able to fund the rest of her adventures through the sales of her specimens. With this sweet cash money (and a good pair of pants), Ynes ventured out on treks to Alaska’s Mount McKinley in 1928 (which she hated but during which she still managed to collect 6,100 specimens), Argentina, Chile, Peru and the Straits of Magellan, Brazil, and more, until 1938.

How do we know all this? Ynes wrote down lots about her adventures and published her accounts in the California Botanical Society journal and Sierra Club Bulletin. Here’s a taste of her adventures: in “Three Thousand Miles Up the Amazon,” she describes paddling a dugout canoe through the five-mile-long Pongo de Manseriche gorge, where Ynes and her guides were surrounded by two-thousand-foot cliff walls on either side—sometimes no more than one hundred feet apart. “From there on,” she wrote, “there was no sight of human beings—only the shining, shimmering, cream-brown river, stretching from sunrise to sunset, confined by living green walls on the right and on the left, and above all the high-arched sky, delicately clouded at dawn, its intense blue relieved as the sun rose higher by fleecy white clouds, which soon piled aloft in huge cumuli, and turning black and threatening as they tore down upon us in a torrent of blinding rain, with thunder and lightning, for the afternoon storm.”

Ynes describes resorting to consuming toucans, monkeys, and parrots (“I can assure you, they are not bad eating”) and undertaking a dicey return trip home. Apparently the river was too high to go back the way they had come by canoe, so her company strapped some balsa into a raft, loaded it up with her plant, bird, and insect collections (and one of her guides’ newly acquired baby monkey), and sailed it down the rapids, getting caught in a whirlpool along the way (“the most delightful mode of transportation I have encountered”). In “Camping on the Equator,” she wrote about her 1934 journey to Ecuador for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to collect a genus of flowering plant called cinchona (known for its quinine), several types of soil-binding herbs, and a rare type of wax palm that grew in climates higher and colder than any other such tree. She took charge of the expedition, clambering down perilous trails and across bogs, pushing her (always male) guides through dangerous conditions, camping in horrible weather, poking fun at her own weaknesses, and generally having no time for anyone’s crap. “In the chill, overcast morning, [one guide] complained that he had slept under a drip all night, but I did not care; why didn’t he get up and fix it?” Good question.

Despite the bugs and the mountain lions and the other things she amicably described as “animated nature,” Ynes maintained a cheery (if no-nonsense) disposition throughout her trips, continuing to take similar expeditions until the age of sixty-five. Her talent for amassing specimens was unmatched, thanks in no small part to her amazing ability to remember every plant she had ever seen (and therefore to determine which ones she hadn’t). On July 12, 1938, just a few short months after a final trip to Mexico, Ynes died of lung cancer in Berkeley, California. The botanist T. Harper Goodspeed remembered her as “a remarkable woman…the true explorer type and happiest when independent and far from civilization.” In the decade she spent adventuring, Ynes collected somewhere as many as 150,000 specimens. She was basically the baddest botanist who ever lived, and a late bloomer to boot.

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