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Friends of the Regional Parks Botanic Garden
REGIONAL PARKS BOTANIC GARDEN
MARCH 2017 NEWSLETTER
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The garden is located at the intersection of Wildcat Canyon Road and South Park Drive in Tilden Regional Park near Berkeley, CA

 

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Coyote Mints

By Earl Nickel
Coyote mints

Coyote mint (Monardella villosa) with St. Catherine’s lace (Eriogonum giganteum). Photo by Annie’s Annuals & Perennials

 

Coyote mints (Monardella) may be one of the least appreciated California native perennials, despite their long history in our Golden State. Although species of Monardella are found from northern Mexico up through Oregon and even crossing the border to British Columbia, the greatest preponderance of them are endemic to California. The most popular, and widely sold, is Monardella villosa. This species is found on dry, rocky slopes in the coastal mountain ranges and western Sierra or in the more open and lower elevations of chaparral and oak woodlands. Popular subspecies include San Francisco coyote mint (Monardella villosa ssp. franciscana);  San Luis Obispo coyote mint (Monardella villosa ssp. obispoensis); and robust coyote mint (Monardella villosa ssp. globosa).

 

Coyote mint (Monardella villosa). Photo by Annie’s Annuals & Perennials 

San Francisco coyote mint (Monardella villosa ssp. franciscana). Photo by John Rusk

 

Despite a few characteristics that distinguish them, all coyote mints form half-woody subshrubs. They can be mounding or sprawling, usually reaching a height of one to two feet and getting a bit wider.  They feature a multitude of thin stems that are, like many mint family members, square in cross-section. Leaves are small, opposite, and linear to oblong shaped, arising from each axil point. The foliage is light to mid-green and lightly hairy on top. With sufficient summer moisture, plants will remain evergreen, but under prolonged dry conditions they can go deciduous.

In late spring and early summer, plants produce terminal whorls of dual-lipped tubular flowers. The upper lip is two lobed, and the bottom lip contains three lobes. The individual flowers that make up the whorl contain narrow petals that are fused at the base. The anthers extend beyond the petals to promote pollination. Flower color can vary slightly, with lavenders and mauves the most common.

Russian River coyote mint (Monardella villosa ‘Russian River’). Photo by Phil Van Soelen

 

One variety of coyote mint that has proven particularly sturdy is Monardella villosa ‘Russian River’. Endemic to that area of Northern California, and a selection introduced by California Flora Nursery, it has proven to be quite disease resistant and, like most coyote mints, deer resistant.

Coyote mint flowers are rich in nectar and attract a wide variety of butterflies. Favorite visitors include the bright orange Gulf fritillary, the larger western tiger swallowtail, the chocolate-brown mourning cloak, as well as the smaller mothlike blues and skippers. Quite simply, coyote mints are butterfly magnets.  The flowers also attract other pollinators, such as native bees and hummingbirds.

 

Notable Species

 

Although most coyote mints are similar in form and appearance, one species is so different as to seem like an interloper. That would be red or hummingbird monardella (Monardella macrantha) and its var. ‘Marian Sampson’.  As Bart O’Brien noted in his excellent Pacific Horticulture article of October 2000, this is one of the most colorful of all California natives.  Its bright red, upward-facing tubular flowers appear most impressive, given that they arise from low, mat-forming foliage. Although the foliage is but four inches tall and only one foot plus wide, a single inflorescence can hold up to twenty-five tightly held, flaming flowers. Plants are found from the Santa Lucia Mountains south to the Sierra San Pedro Martir of Baja California, at elevations ranging from 2,000 feet to 6,500 feet. The bloom season of red monardella is a bit later than that of Monardella villosa, typically during the summer months.

Red monardella (Monardella macrantha). Photo by Annie’s Annuals & Perennials

Red monardella (Monardella macrantha). Photo by Annie’s Annuals & Perennials

 

Another wonderful species found in California is mountain bee balm or mountain pennyroyal (Monardella odoratissima), aptly named because of its intensely fragrant foliage. It is found in many Northern California mountain ranges, including the Klamath Mountains and the North California Coast Ranges, the Cascade Range, the Sierra Nevada, and the Modoc Plateau. Plants branch readily, usually bearing a single, inch-wide, spherical flower cluster, with a whorl of leafy, purple-tinged green bracts underneath. Flowers sport the distinctive five-lobed calyxes and either light purple flowers or, in the case of the ssp. pallida, white flowers. The more widespread ssp. glauca bears darker purple or reddish flowers.

Mountain bee balm (Monardella odoratissima). Photo by John Rusk

 

Two more notable species that are found in the Regional Parks Botanic Garden are green coyote mint (Monardella viridis ssp. viridis) and willowy coyote mint (Monardella viminea). Green coyote mint is found in chaparral areas of Sonoma County. Its common name owes to its foliage, which is a brighter green than that found on other species. Although the flowers are not as showy as those of other species, green coyote mint produces a small inflorescence composed of light pink or purple flowers, held in a small cup of rough-haired, leaflike bracts.

Green coyote mint (Monardella viridis ssp. viridis). Photo by John Rusk

 

Willowy coyote mint has adapted itself to sandy or rocky washes found in the coastal hills of San Diego County. It blooms much later than most species, sometimes as late as Thanksgiving, making it a valuable late-season nectar source for local butterflies. It owes its common name to the slender, willowlike, vertical branches. This rare species is a federal and state listed endangered species. The California Native Plant Society lists willowy coyote mint as a critically imperiled species on its Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants.

Green coyote mint (Monardella viridis). Photo from Wikimedia Commons

 

Growing Coyote Mints

In the milder climates of the Bay Area, coyote mints appreciate a good amount of afternoon sun. In hotter areas, protect from midday heat. All coyote mints need good drainage, making them good rock garden denizens. If you grow them in pots, add pumice to improve drainage. Coyote mints want dry conditions, so if possible limit water during cool winter months. During our long dry summers, they may go deciduous; a little summer water will prolong their ability to remain evergreen. Coyote mints are cold hardy, being reliable in USDA zones 3 to 9 and Sunset zones 14 to 24.

You can keep your coyote mint looking its best with a yearly fall pruning.  Take back each branch about a third after flowering has ceased.  Plants will sprout new leaves, stimulated by the winter rains, filling out to a pleasing bushy habit. 

Coyote mints are not generally long lived, although beneficial conditions prolong their lifespan. Plants will reseed, and birds, who enjoy the seeds, will help with seed dispersal. Coyote mints are also easy to propagate by division or from cuttings of vegetative shoots.

Willowy coyote mint (Monardella viminea). Photo by John Rusk


Earl Nickel is a horticulturist, writer, and photographer based in Oakland, California. He has been a featured gardening columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle since 2004 and with Pacific Horticulture magazine since 2015. Earl maintains a large and varied garden and writes a weekly gardening blog http://normsnursery.blogspot.com).


Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour

This year’s Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour is scheduled for May 7, 2017. This popular event features 41 gardens and a native plant sale extravaganza.

For more information, go to http://www.bringingbackthenatives.net.
Upcoming Classes
Click here for full descriptions of the classes as well as the class registration form.
March 5 Drawing Native Plants Space Available
March 30 3 Spring Wildflower Field Trips starts March 30 Class Full
April 6 Tending a Native Garden Space Available
May 14 Vegetative Propagation of California Native Plants Space Available