I’ve always been a big fan of the various natural landscapes in California, but I usually tend to miss the forest for the trees when it comes to annuals. I’m usually drawn to the variety of trees and shrubbery for their consistency. Annuals…well…they come and go.
One such group of annuals that I have never paid much attention to are the many species of Monkey Flowers (Mimulus spp.) in the Figwort family (Phrymaceae, formerly Scrophulariaceae) that are annuals. There are also perennial species of Monkey Flower (Diplacus spp. according to some, but still in the Mimulus genus to others), which are the Monkey Flowers I have a deeper appreciation for and know a bit better. I have seen the annual species here and there and have found the pretty flowers quite appealing (especially the yellow ones), but knowing how fast they come and go prevents me from growing too attached. The perennial species only live two to five years as it is. A friend and fellow California Native Plant Society member suggested I write a post on monkey flowers, so I’ve decided to give them a closer look. In my search, I was shocked to find out that a little plant I see every year on vacation in the Eastern Sierras was in fact an annual Monkey Flower, hence what prompted the title of this post.
So the first question I desired to answer when researching this plant was with the name….Monkey Flower. When looking at the beautiful rich yellow of Common Monkey Flower (M. guttatus) or the bright violet Frémont’s Monkey Flower (M. fremontii), I see a five-lobed, pretty flower, but I have a hard time seeing the monkey anywhere. ”Mimus” is Latin for “mimic actor,” and the the disproportionately large flowers on certain species is said by many to appear to look like a monkey or a just a face in general. Perhaps if I ate some of it, I’d see the monkeys (they are edible you know).
M. fremontii is a native Californian annual commonly found in the southern parts of the state. It thrives in sandy soil near streams and around shrubs. Like many species of Monkey Flower, it prefers wet conditions. Look at the picture. Do you see the face? (Let me know if you do, because I still can’t.)
As I continued to research monkey flowers I quickly discovered that there were many species out there…approximately 77, actually. While there’s no way I can manage to cover all of them here (even if I only focused on the California natives), I will just focus on two other species – an annual and a perennial – that I enjoy.
M. jepsonii is the one annual Monkey Flower with which I am actually quite familiar. It is a rather small plant with little purple flowers that enjoy dry sandy conditions. I’ve seen then in fields in the Eastern Sierras, especially the Mammoth Lakes area, and even in the Mojave Desert near Edwards Air Force Base. They are so small and spread out that they don’t look like a carpet of purple on the plain, as romantic as that might be. Because of their size you can easily miss them, or at least not see them until you’re on top of them. This is why I enjoy them so much. They’re an unsuspected little surprise and I’m always excited to see them….and I always try to take pictures of them. Unfortunately I cannot find one at present, but above is an image of M. rubellus which looks similar. I’ll update the picture as soon as I can find one that I have taken.
The Sticky Monkey Flower (M. aurantiacus) is the Monkey Flower that most people think of in California when they hear the words “monkey flower” and “native” grouped together. It’s one of my favorite because of the variety of colors (and that it’s not an annual). It’s often found in natural areas in Northern California with numerous yellow to orange to red flowers. Yellow seems to be the most common color I see growing on canyon slopes and hillsides areas in and around San Francisco. The Sticky Monkey Flower is actually considered a subshrub or a shrub because it can sometimes be the size of a shrub or somewhere between that of a shrub and ground cover. It’s called “sticky” because the surface of its leaves are sticky, but not sappy or messy. This plant does well in well-draining soil in your garden. Like many California native plants, it does not require a lot of care and pandering like many other plants commonly used in typical landscaping. If you live inland or in an otherwise warm climate, make sure it gets some summer water and some light shade if you don’t want it to drop its leaves. It can be drought tolerant, but prefers to be watered moderately and regularly. They look beautiful when planted in front of larger shrubs in planting beds…….and when growing wildly along your favorite hiking trail. Look for their bright blooms from March through June.