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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Plant of the Month (July) : Coyote mint – Monardella villosa

Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae incarnata) feeding on Coyote mint (Monardella villosa)

It’s only natural to think about pollinator plants in July; so many pollinators – including the showy butterflies and moths – are active right now!  Summer is an excellent time to evaluate the habitat value of your garden and consider new plants for fall planting (more on that topic later this month). Some of our best native pollinator plants are in the Mint family.  And a particularly charming one, the Coyote mint, is blooming right now in Mother Nature’s Garden of Health.

The genus name ‘Monardella’ honors the Spanish physician/botanist Nicolás Bautista Monardes (1493-1588).  Monardes was interested in the medicinal uses of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern plants, and wrote several books on these topics. He did not, alas, ever see a Monardella; but we’re certain he would have enjoyed learning about them!

At least 30 species of Monardella are native to California. The taxonomy of this group is still under active revision, so the final number may be higher or lower.  While some are annuals, more (about two-thirds) are perennials and many are locally endemic (grow in a limited geographic area).  Many are rare or endangered in the wild, but a few species are now grown in California gardens.  Among the latter, Monardella villosa (including its sub-species and cultivars) is probably the most widely used.  The Narrowleaf/Flaxleaf monardella (Monardella linoides) and Mountain monardella (Monardella odoratissima) are also available from native plant nurseries and planted in S. California gardens.

Coyote mint (Monardella villosa) in Mother Nature's Garden of Health

The Monardellas are native to western North America, from British Columbia, Canada to northern Mexico.  Most are aromatic – some with a strong minty aroma – and most are used for medicinal and culinary purposes.  Coyote mint (Monardella villosa) is native to Central and Northern California and southern Oregon. Four sub-species are currently recognized (Monardella villosa ssp. franciscana; M. villosa ssp. globosa; M. villosa ssp. obispoensis; and M. villosa ssp. villosa).  The species grows on dry, rocky slopes in the coastal mountain ranges and western Sierras.  It can still be found at elevations of about 1000 meters or lower (3000 ft or so), primarily in chaparral, oak woodlands and forest openings.   

One year old Coyote mint (Monardella villosa) plant
While the sub-species vary in their characteristics, all are perennials (or half-woody sub-shrubs) with a sprawling to mounded shape, 1-2 ft (0.3-0.6 m.) tall and wide. The many thin stems are square in cross-section (typical of Mints) and may be woody at the base.  The overall shape of the plant depends somewhat on light, water and whether the plant is browsed or pruned back in fall.  Yearly pruning encourages a full, mounded shape.

Close-up of foliage - Coyote mint (Monardella villosa)
The leaves are medium green (‘mint green’) to gray-green, generally small (several cm. or less than 1 inch) and either rounded or lance-shaped. The foliage has a strong, minty aroma (some say it smells like toothpaste) particularly on hot, dry days.  As seen in the photograph above, the leaves arise from the axils (branching points), a characteristic of the Mints.  The foliage is usually hairy and the leaves are stress-deciduous (normally dropped in dry conditions).  Occasional water can prolong leaf-retention in the summer.

Flowers of Coyote mint (Monardella villosa) in tight clusters.  Note Skipper butterfly.
Monardella flowers are usually quite showy and Monardella villosa is no exception.  The species flowers in summer – commonly June through July or August with a little water.   The flowers are clustered in tight, ball-like clusters along the stem, another good hint that this plant is a Mint.   Flower color ranges from pale lavender to a darker purple or magenta; petals sometimes have darker blotches.  The individual flowers (see below) have narrow petals that are fused at the base and anthers (male sex organs) that extend beyond the petals to promote pollination.

Close-up of flowers - Coyote mint (Monardella villosa)
In general, Monardellas like sunshine and well-drained soils.   But in Southern California, particularly away from the coast, they may prefer some shade.  If your garden is hot, provide a little afternoon shade.   

We’ve grown Monardella villosa in both sandy and clay soils.  The trick is to limit summer water to 1-2 times per month, preferably given at times when the temperatures are cooler.  Coyote mint is more tolerant of irrigation than many Monardellas; but it does hail from rather dry conditions and really dislikes excessive winter water.  If you garden in clay, consider situating this mint on a slope or small berm.   Benign neglect – not irrigation – is best for a long, healthy life.

'Russian River' Coyote mint (Monardella villosa 'Russian River')
One cultivar that does well in local gardens is Monardella villosa ‘Russian River’.  This lush-looking cultivar from Sonoma County (see above) was introduced to the horticultural trade by Cal Flora Nursery.  The dark green foliage and bright magenta flowers make this plant a showy addition to the garden.  Growing 1-2 feet tall and 2-3 feet wide, ‘Russian River’ tolerates sun/part-shade and occasional water.   As seen below, it looks more like a groundcover than the straight species usually available in S. California nurseries.

Flowers of 'Russian River' Coyote mint (Monardella villosa 'Russian River') are particularly lovely.

Coyote mint looks best with yearly fall pruning.  Remove about 1/3 of each stem/branch in the fall, after flowering has ceased.  Plants will grow new leaves and side branches with the winter rains, producing a nice, bushy shape.  Remove the spent flowers (deadhead) as they occur to prolong flowering or allow the old flowers remain until fall.  Birds will happily eat the seeds; the plants may also naturally re-seed.
'Russian River' Coyote mint (Monardella villosa 'Russian River') in native plant garden
Madrona Marsh Nature Center, Torrance CA.

So, why consider adding Coyote mint to your garden?  First and foremost, it attracts a wide range of butterflies.  From the larger Western Tiger Swallowtail, Gulf Fritillary and Mourning Cloak to the smaller Blues and Skippers – all find the flowers simply irresistible.  You can’t do much better than Coyote mint for a reliable ‘butterfly magnet’.  The flowers also attract other pollinators including native bees and hummingbirds.  If you want a garden full of action, add a Coyote mint or two.

Umber Skipper feeding on Coyote mint (Monardella villosa) flowers

A second good reason to plant Coyote mint is for its culinary and medicinal uses.  This is not one of the major medicinal mints; however an infusion (tea) can be used to settle an upset stomach, and an infusion or a salve made from leaves is used for respiratory complaints.  The leaves and herbaceous stems can be used fresh or dry in recipes calling for mint.  The flavor is clean and fresh – and definitely minty!   The foliage makes a delicious tea, particularly when ‘brewed’ as a sun tea.   The flavor of this mint changes if exposed to high temperatures.  Best to steep your tea in cool water – or in the sun.

A third reason to consider Coyote mint is its attractive foliage and lovely flowers.  Combine Monardella villosa with other plants that enjoy relatively dry conditions – for example the native Salvias.  It provides color during the hot summer, when Salvias are dormant.  The ‘Russian River’ cultivar makes a nice groundcover on slopes and under tall trees.   It also looks charming cascading over a wall.   Consider planting Coyote mint in an herb garden or in dry areas near the vegetable garden to attract pollinators.  Or plant a mixed perennial bed with California fuschia (Epilobium canum), the Grindelias, Common yarrrow (Achillea millefolia) and Asters (Aster species and Symphyotrichum chilense) for a long-blooming butterfly show.

 'Russian River' Coyote mint (Monardella villosa 'Russian River') in home garden,
 Redondo Beach, CA.

In summary, Coyote mint is a plant with habitat, culinary, medicinal and aesthetic value.  It is a good addition to water-wise California gardens and a delight to behold.  We hope you’ll consider adding Monardella villosa to your own home garden.

For a gardening information sheet see: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/monardella-villosa  

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 native plant gardening questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com


1 comment:

  1. You guys always do such a good job on your plant species posts...this one is great!

    In the past I've had struggles with Monardella in my own garden - and wound up giving up on it for a while. Mine always seemed to look scraggly.

    But this article has encouraged me to try again, and then start using it in client gardens, once I've regained my expertise with it.

    Wish me luck, since it is a beautiful plant.