A monkey flower is a plant in the genus Mimulus. These plants are named for their showy flowers, which resemble the heads of grinning monkeys, and they are native to North America, Europe, and Asia. In addition to being found readily in the wild in many regions of the world, monkey flowers are also cultivated as ornamental plants by gardeners. Many garden supply stores carry monkey flowers, and they can also be ordered directly through nurseries.
Plants in this genus are quite diverse. Some monkey flower plants have simple oval leaves, while others have toothed leaves. The plants may be hairy and sticky, smooth, or thorny, and the flowers may be two-lipped with distinctive dots, or multi-petaled. Depending on the species, a monkey flower may grow like a shrub, with a sprawling growth habit which causes to to resemble a thick carpet, or it may grow as an upright plant.
In some climates, monkey flowers are perennials, returning year after year and growing more vigorous in the process. Others may be annuals, growing well in the summer and fall months and fading away during cold winters. Many nurseries label their monkey flowers as annuals, which can cause a gardening surprise when the plants don't die out after the fall. In some regions, monkey flowers will grow quite large and very showy. California in particular seems to be a preferred environment for monkey flowers in North America.
The colors of monkey flowers vary considerably, with red, pink, yellow, blue, and white versions, among others. The plants often do well in tough, salty soils, and they will in fact pull salts out of the soil. For this reason, many people consider monkey flowers inedible, because the monkey flower plant becomes bitter and salty with time. The plants can be used in environmental remediation to pull out salts and other substances from the soil so that it can be used for other purposes.
These plants have a slightly musky scent which becomes more noticeable in hot weather or when the plants are crushed. Some people refer to the monkey flower genus as the “musk flower genus,” referencing this distinct odor. The smell can occasionally be unpleasant, especially for people who are sensitive to odors, and gardeners may want to consider planting monkey flowers out of the way of paths so that people do not accidentally step on them and release the scent. It may also be advisable to refrain from planting monkey flowers around windows, as the smell will waft indoors on warm days.