Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Ynes Enriquetta Julietta Mexia (1870 – 1938)

Ynes Mexia was a Mexican-American botanist known for her collection of novel plant specimens from areas of Mexico and South America. She discovered a new genus of Compositae and was the most accomplished female plant collector of her time, travelling farther and collecting more specimens than any other. 

In 1921, Ynes matriculated at the University of California, Berkeley, motivated by trips with the Sierra Club, where a botany class sparked her interest in the field; she never received a degree. She died in Berkeley on July 12, 1938 from lung cancer after falling ill on a collecting trip to Mexico.

Mimosa mexiae is a species in this family [Fabaceae]
Mexia began her career at the age of 55 with a 1925 trip to western Mexico under the tutelage of Roxanna Ferris, a botanist at Stanford University. Mexia fell off a cliff and was injured, halting the trip, which yielded 500 specimens, including several new species. The first species to be named after her, Mimosa mexiae, was discovered on this excursion. 
Over the next 12 years, she travelled to Argentina, Chile, Mount McKinley (in 1928), Brazil (in 1929), Ecuador (in 1934), Peru and the Straits of Magellan (in 1935), and southwestern Mexico (in 1937) on 7 different collecting trips, discovering one new genus, Mexianthus, and many new species among her 150,000 total samples. During her trip to Western Mexico, she collected over 33,000 samples, including 50 new species. In Ecuador, Mexia worked with the Bureau of Plant Industry and Exploration, part of Ecuador's Department of Agriculture. There, she looked for the wax palm, cinchona, and herbs that bind to the soil. Mexia once traveled up the Amazon River to its source in the Andes mountains with a guide and three other men in a canoe. She also spent three months living with the Araguarunas, a native group in the Amazon.  All of these excursions were funded by the sale of her specimens to collectors and institutions alike. 
Another member of the Asteraceae genus.
Mexianthus, named for Mexia, is a genus of Compositae [also known as Asteraceae]. Specimens from these trips were stored in the Gary Herbarium at Harvard University and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Mexia was remembered by her colleagues for her expertise on life in the field as well as her resilience in the tough conditions, as well as her impulsiveness and fractious but generous personality. They lauded her meticulous, careful work and her skills as a collector.

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