Here’s another report from the high Sierras – plus an entry in a photo contest at Gardening Gone Wild. Their theme this month is “get down on your knees”. I was either on my knees or my belly for this one; I’m often in undignified positions with plants. And since it’s a Wild Gardening photo contest, I figured a garden of mule’s ear would be particularly apt.
It’s a wild plant that grows in its own nature-designed garden, and I think it’s worth it to take a look at how that happens. So many good garden designs appear in nature (and most of my favorite garden designers notice that).
Mule’s ear colonizes on Sierra slopes, making a repeating pattern with its leaves and, in season, flowers. Here you can see that it’s pointed up by Indian paintbrush (Castilleja); there’s also some of the miniature mountain lupine which blooms through fall, when it is also punctuated by occasional asters. An occasional low shrub leaves the sense of a meadow but gives some variation.
Mule’s ear is a good example of how a repeated plant, with a bit of variation, can be a very satisfying sight. It’s not a sight I see in my own garden much, as I tend to the botanical-garden order of gardening, but I notice I actually have been slipping a little into repeating plantings (I planted Papaver rhoeas “Falling in Love” in several containers, and really enjoyed the results), because there is a certain satisfaction to it. Maybe we’re just dialed in to like having certain plants surround us; maybe it’s an ancient survival instinct or maybe it’s an ancient magical one.
Mule’s ear is in the sunflower family, obvious when you look at its blooms:
While most dry-environment plants have small leaves (often hard and shiny) to keep in vital moisture, mule’s ear uses another tactic: soft hair all over the leaves (mollis means “soft”). And in order to avoid too much evaporation, mule’s ear leaves are oriented vertically, to get as little sun as possible.
That’s another clue we might use for our gardens: how suited is this plant for my environment? If I want to plant a lot of something, that’s a really important question, because a lot of work, water, and whining will go into it if I pick something that just isn’t suited to my climate.
In any case, I always look for colonies of mule’s ear (I admit, to myself I call this mule ears and am having a hard time getting it right for this post). I’ve been watching this particular field for years.
Even though it isn’t as spectacular in the fall, I may like mule ears best when it’s on its way out*. Half the foliage dries by early fall, and when the mountain wind blows, it makes a pleasant rustling.
Not all the ears dry at once, as you can see, so there is a depth of color and texture as well as sound to fall mule’s ear as they slowly dry in the Sierra wind.
*For those who are unsure of the use of “it’s” and “its”, this sentence proves a guide. If a sentence doesn’t work reading the contraction as “it is” “it was” or “it has” then the word you want is “its”. And I know: many editors don’t even get this these days. That’s their shame, but it doesn’t need to be yours.