Ynes Mexia

The Sunflower Gardener

It's the birthday of Ynes Mexia, A Mexican American botanist born in 1870.

After a lifetime of turbulent personal challenges, Mexia discovered the Sierra Club at age 50. Throughout her life, nature had been a balm to her. She decided to enroll at Berkeley in order to take botany classes. She would take classes there on and off over the next 16 years; her goal was not to graduate but simply to learn more about plants. Mexia fell in love with fieldwork, and she went on numerous trips through the southwestern part of the United States, Mexico, and South America.
Mexia was especially drawn to unique plants, and she absolutely adored sunflowers. In fact, on one of her botanizing trips, she discovered an entirely new genus of Compositae.
Although Mexia was a late bloomer as a botanist, her collecting efforts proved extraordinary. Many scholars argue that she was the most accomplished plant collector of her time.
Here are some highlights of her work:

  • Mexia collected and preserved 150,000 plants, flowers, and leaves
  • Her first trip yielded 500 specimens, the same number that Darwin brought back on the Beagle.
  • Mexia personally discovered 500 brand-new plant species.
  • Her botanist peers were well aware of her staggering amount of work and expeditions. Specifically, Mexia enjoyed the thrill of working with botanist Alice Eastwood.

Yet, not even lung cancer could stop her from collecting plants. In 1938, she had returned to Mexico in search of new specimens. But her illness got the best of her; she was forced to cut her trip short and returned to the United States. She died at Berkeley on June 12th.
Mexia's estate was donated in part to the Redwood Preserve in California. A 40-acre grove, home to one of the tallest trees, was named in her honor.
Today, some 80 years after her death, scientists are still processing the plants she collected.

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Ynes Mexia
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