Monkey flowers give your garden a cheerful face

Children, and plenty of adults as well, have long played the game of finding shapes in the clouds passing overhead. This joy in finding patterns in ordinary objects may be how flowers in the mimulus genus got their nickname.

Mimulus derives from the Latin for mimic, although it is sometimes translated as "little buffoon." The plant is more often referred to as "monkey flower," since it is said to resemble the face of a grinning simian.

A variety of monkey flower species are available, including both annuals and perennials as well as shrubs. Frances Tenenbaum, editor of the 2003 book "Taylor's Encyclopedia of Garden Plants," says the funnel-shaped flowers come in colors such as red, yellow, orange, and pink. Some monkey flowers are striped or speckled with contrasting colors.

While many plants will suffer if they aren't placed in well-drained soil, mimulus typically thrives in damp conditions. Las Piltas Nursery, a California native plant business, says some species will only grow well if they have a constant source of moisture such as a stream or pond nearby. For this reason, the plants generally won't tolerate dry conditions.

Most monkey flowers should be started by seed, but some species can start in other ways. Marjorie J. Schmidt, author of the 1980 book "Growing California Native Plants," says shrubby mimulus varieties can sometimes be grown from wood cuttings. Others can be started use stolons.

When planting with seeds, a light covering of soil is sufficient. Tenenbaum says full sunlight is sometimes ideal, although a site with afternoon shade is best in areas with hot summers.

Seeds can also be started indoors, but may require a lengthy growing period of 12 to 15 weeks before the last spring frost. The seeds can simply be pressed into the soil. Schmidt says a section of soil can be cut out and transplanted once the second or third pair of leaves has formed on the seedlings.

The flowers don't need too much maintenance, but should receive plenty of moisture if you don't find a naturally damp area to sow them. Tenenbaum says you can also pinch the plants to help them branch out and remove spent flowers to prolong the blooming period.

Some mimulus species will be able to spread on their own. For example, the Missouri Botanical Garden says the Allegheny monkey flower will not only self-seed, but also propagate through rhizomes.

While monkey flowers aren't usually susceptible to pests or diseases, you may notice that some seedlings are affected by damping off. Any seedlings that have collapsed should be removed, and the soil should then be treated with an anti-fungal spray.

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