The Monardellas

Everyone loves the mint family. We cook with it, it smells nice, it doesn’t die in our herb gardens, and one member is the original namesake of our city (and newsletter). The family is Lamiaceae (also know as Labiatae), which includes such commonly known genera as mint (Mentha), yerba buena (Satureja), horehound (Marrubium), hedge-nettle (Stachys), sage (Salvia), thornmint (Acanthomintha), pitcher sage (Lepechinia), henbit (Lami urn), and bluecurls (Trichostema). In California, the mint family comprises 100 native species and 14 non-native species with 20 genera native to the state and seven introduced genera.

The most speciose genus of mints in California is Monardella. The monardellas, pennyroyals, or coyote mints, as they are lometimes called, consist of 29 species and 24 subspecies, all of which are native to California. The genus is native to western North America and adjacent areas of Mexico, and is found nowhere else. Of the California species, 23 taxa are listed by CNPS as rare – two presumed extinct; 12 on list 1 B (rare in California and elsewhere); one on list 2 (rare in California, more common elsewhere); one on list 3 (more information needed); and seven on list 4 (plants of limited distribution). One subspecies is listed as endangered by the state of California.

The genus Monardella is made up of low-growing annuals and perennial herbs with small, simple, and pleasantly fragrant leaves. Some species form woody stems at the base. Flowers are tubular, rose to purplish, violet, or white, two-lipped and irregular. The genus hybridizes readily, and identification can be challenging. Many species have exacting soil requirements, making them difficult to cultivate.

In the Bay Area, we can find about eight monardellas. These include M. antonina ssp. antonina, M. brewen, M. douglasii ssp. douglasii, M. lanceolata, M. undu)ata, and M. villosa (including ssp. franciscana, ssp. globosa, and ssp. villosa). In San Francisco, however, ourmonardella diversity is restricted to few and scattered populations of coyote mint, Monardella villosa ssp. franciscana, which can be found in the Presidio, above Laguna Honda Reservoir, and on Bernal Heights, Twin Peaks, Mt. Davidson, Bayview Hill, and Yerba Buena Island. Coyote mint is a clumping perennial developing into a low mound from a woody base. It is typically associated with dry, rocky locations in coastal scrub and woodland habitats near the coast. It is distributed from the central coast, throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and into the north coast ranges. Our local plants produce lavender flowers from June through August.

Historically, another member of the genus occurred in San Francisco. Curly-leaved monardella (M. undulata) is an annual inhabitant of coastal strand and other sandy coastal areas. It was last recorded near lake Merced but hasn’t been seen there or anywhere else in the city in many years. Curly-leaved monardella can still be found in Sonoma, Marin, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Monterey, and San Luis Obispo counties. It produces rose-purple flowers from May through July. Because curly-leaved monardella has a limited distribution, CNPS has placed it on its list 4, indicating that it’s worth keeping an eye on, even though its vulnerability or susceptibility to threat appears low at this time. While the species cannot be considered rare from a statewide perspective, it is uncommon enough to warrant monitoring.

Like all the native mints, a monardella is lovely to encounter. I almost always consider it worth a longer look, taking in its refreshing aroma and snapping a photo or two. Monardella villosa ssp. franciscana would certainly be a worthwhile addition to any garden. It is not adapted to sandy soils, preferring soil that is a little heavier. It requires good drainage to prevent rotting in winter. Avoid summer watering. The flowers are attractive to bees and butterflies so you will also be supporting your local wildlife.