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Thursday, July 7, 2016

Plant of the Month (July) : Southern mountain monardella – Monardella australis

Southern mountain monardella (Monardella australis) - Mother Nature's Garden of Health

July is our peak butterfly season, so we like to feature a ‘butterfly plant’ for our July Plant of the Month.  One of the plants that’s causing quite a stir is the Southern mountain monardella (Monardella australis - pronounced ‘mon-ar-DEL-uh  aw-STRAY-lis’).  It’s been blooming up a storm recently in the Garden of Health.

Like many California natives, Southern mountain monardella has engendered some recent taxonomic debate.  Although proposed as a separate species by Leroy Abrams in 1912, it was often classified as a sub-species of the Mountain mondardella, Monardella odoratissima (ssp. australis).  Monardella odoratissima demonstrates variability throughout its wide range (from British Columbia to California and Arizona), and includes several sub-species.  The Southern mountain monardella was thought to be just the S. California variant of a wide wide-ranging plant.  

In 2009 and 2014-15, AC Sanders & RA Elvin argued for species status for Monardella australis and proposed five sub-species. [1] As of now, Southern mountain monardella is accepted as a separate species.  However, Monardella australis can still be found in the nursery trade as Monardella odoratissima ssp. australis, or sometimes just as Monardella odoratissima.   Confusing – but that’s the nature of science!

Southern mountain mint (also known commonly as Southern monardella, Southern coyote mint and Desert mint), grows in the San Gabriel, San Bernardino and San Jacinto Ranges (eastern Transverse Ranges) in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside Counties of S. California.  It rarely grows below about 4500 ft. (1500 m.) in the wild and can be found as high as 10,000 ft. (3000 m.).   It grows on rocky slopes and forest openings in Yellow pine and Red fir forests.   It perhaps seems an unlikely candidate for lower elevation gardens; and yet it appears to do well there.

Southern mountain monardella (Monardella australis)
Southern mountain monardella is a part-woody perennial or small sub-shrub, with a mature size of 1-2 ft. tall by 1-2+ ft. wide (30-60 cm.). Like many local sub-shrubs, it starts out with a few slender, wand-like stems.  As it gets older – and additional branches fill in the shape – it becomes mounded to somewhat sprawling. If you know the San Diego Willowy monardella (Monardella linoides ssp. viminea or Monardella viminea), the shape is somewhat similar.   Our plant in the Garden of Health is young (2 years) and hasn’t yet reached its full potential; it’s still in the gangly, adolescent stage.
Southern mountain monardella (Monardella australis) - foliage
The foliage of Monardella australis is a soft, light- or gray-green.  The leaves are lance-shaped to narrowly ovate, and may be slightly folded in a dry garden (see above).  The margins are entire or sometimes toothed.  The foliage is drought-deciduous; but the plant leafs out again given a little water. 

Both foliage and flowers are highly aromatic.  To our tastes, this is one of the nicest mint flavors among the California natives.  Clean and distinctive, it’s a flavor destined for kitchen and potpourri.  A tea from fresh or dried leaves is refreshing – and can help settle an upset stomach. We’ve used its flavor in cookies, cakes and candies – and gotten rave reviews!    To learn how to make a kitchen extract from this and other mints (oh, so simple!) see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2016/04/california-gourmet-making-flavored.html

Southern mountain monardella (Monardella australis)
 - flowering plant
Monardellas are in the Mint family (Lamiaceae).  As expected, their flowers are grouped in ball-like clusters (inflorescences) around the stems.  But the Monardellas are showier of flower than the common culinary mints.  That’s just one reason they have a place of honor in native and traditional gardens, alike.

Southern mountain monardella (Monardella australis) -

Southern mountain monardella has flowers that range from pale pink to pastel lavender and are hairy.  The bracts at the base of the inflorescence are green and leafy; those surrounding individual flowers are pink-green.   The flowers are about ¾ inch (2 cm) long.  The overall impression is of delicate pastels – like an impressionist painting (possibly Monet?).  This is not the showiest of the native Monardellas – that honor likely goes to Monardella villosa – but the flowers are definitely charming.

Southern mountain monardella (Monardella australis)
 with Gulf Fritillary butterfly
Like many in the Mint family, Monardella australis attracts its share of pollinators, including bees (native and European Honeybee), pollinator flies and especially the butterflies. In fact, this species seems to attract both the small (particularly the Skippers) and larger butterflies.  We’ve seen Gulf Fritillary, Western Tiger Swallowtail, the Whites and the Ladies happily nectaring on our Monardella.   If you need an addition to your butterfly garden, this might be the plant.

Monardella australis can be grown in most garden soils.  Though its natural medium is rocky, it seems perfectly happy with sandy soil, clays & clay loams.  As long as your soil drains reasonably, this plant does fine.   It seems to do better with part shade in Western L.A. County, though you can grow it in sun with irrigation.   Even when established, it looks best with occasional summer water; perhaps every several weeks in clays - weekly in sands.  In nature it gets from 1-4 inches of rain in the summer.  So if it’s raining in the local mountains, consider giving your plants a little water.   Taper off watering in late August or September.

Pruning Southern mountain monardella (Monardella australis)


To keep Monardella australis compact and mounded, a yearly pruning is recommended.   Prune each branch back by about 1/3, making sure to leave at least 3-4 sprouting centers.  You can prune in summer or wait until late fall.  Either way, we like to wait until the plant is producing new leaves; that way we know we aren’t pruning back into old, non-productive wood.

Southern mountain monardella (Monardella australis)
seedhead ready for harvest

If you prune (or deadhead) in summer, you may want to try propagating Monardella australis from seed or stem cuttings.  If propagating from seed, let the seedheads dry on the plant, collect, then separate the tiny seeds from the chaffy bracts (the bracts form tan seed capsules).  Try rubbing the bracts over a metal sieve or piece of screen; the seeds and smaller chaff will fall through.  You can then save the seeds for planting in winter.  Fresh seed should sprout with no pre-treatment.  The seedlings are very small – we’ll try to post some pictures this winter.

We haven’t propagated this plant from cuttings, but will give it a try in a few weeks.  We’ll update this posting with our experiences. 

Southern mountain monardella can be used in several ways in the garden.  It’s sometimes used as a groundcover plant under trees.   If you have an herb garden, that’s another option.  You might also plant it in a dryish, permanent position around the edges of a vegetable garden.  It looks pretty as a foreground plant in mixed beds.  And it would be happy in a large container (at least 18 inches diameter and 24 inches deep).  An unglazed terra cotta pot would work well; and you’ll need to water at least weekly in summer.

Umber Skipper (Poanes melane) on Southern mountain
 monardella (Monardella australis)

In summary, Monardella australis is a mint that’s unique to our local mountain ranges; it’s truly a part of what makes S. California so special.  It is an excellent butterfly plant and can be planted for this reason alone.  It has a lovely fragrance, making it a choice plant for the herb and kitchen garden.   We hope you can find a place for this little gem in your garden.   Then sit back and enjoy the butterflies!

Fiery Skipper on Southern mountain monardella
 (Monardella australis)

For plant information sheets on other native plants see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants_17.html



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com


1 comment:

  1. I haven't tried this one - but other efforts with monardella have produced sort of floppy plants that didn't satisfy me. I think I planted them in the wrong place - not from a cultural but from an aesthetic perspective.

    Next time, I would place these in amongst other plants that would give structure to their sprawling - maybe wedged in between something in mid-tone green with a full, firm leaf.

    Next time...ah, next time!