It’s as though some people are born knowing exactly what they want to be when they grow up. For others it takes longer to find their true calling and this was the case for Ynes Mexia. She began her career as a botanist in her fifties, but this didn’t stop her leaving a substantive mark on the field.

Ynes was born in Washington D.C on 24th May 1870, to Sarah Wilmer and Mexican Diplomat Enrique Mexia. Though she was born in DC, she spent the bulk of her childhood in Texas. Shortly after the death of her husband, Ynes moved to San Francisco, where she worked as a social worker.

While in San Francisco, Ynes joined the Sierra Club, an organisation dedicated to protecting and celebrating the environment that had been founded there in 1892. Ynes had always loved nature, so this was an obvious fit. In 1921, she also began taking courses at a local university, and it was here that she fell in love with botany.

Four years later, at the age of 55, Ynes embarked on a plant collection trip to Mexico that would change, not only the course of the rest of her life, but also the history of botany. Though she began the trip with a group of other botanists, Ynes soon became convinced that she would be more successful on her own, so she broke away from the team. It was a dangerous choice ––which she must have realised when she fell off a cliff during the expedition and fractured her hand, as well as several ribs — but Ynes was undeterred.  She spent two years gathering 500 specimens, approximately 50 of which were previously undiscovered.

Over the next several years, Ynes continued her collecting, travelling everywhere from Alaska to Peru to Argentina in search of rare plants. She faced earthquakes and volcanoes and all sorts of other natural impediments, but she persisted, ultimately collecting roughly 150,000 specimens. It is believed that approximately 500 of those plants had previously been undiscovered.

Ynes died just 13 years after she embarked on her first expedition, but in that time, she made a profound, lasting contribution to the field of botany.  Several of the plants she discovered have been named in her honor, her specimens are stored and showcased world-wide, and to this day, nearly a century later, scientists are still studying her work. Her remarkable life is a testament to the idea that you’re never to old to set another goal or a dream a new dream.


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Amber Karlins

Written by Amber Karlins

Amber works as a professor in Florida, teaching writing, literature, and theatre. Her first book, a work of creative non-fiction, was published in 2011. She also enjoys academic writing and has published papers in such places as the African American National Biography and the Journal for the Society of Armenian Studies.

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