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Mule’s Ear Garden (Wyethia mollis)


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.

{ 14 comments… add one }

  • lostlandscape(James) August 14, 2009, 11:04 am

    The silhouette in your official entry is beautiful. This would be a lovely plant even if it didn’t bloom. Its crispy autumn stage is very nice. I like.

  • Susie August 14, 2009, 3:27 pm

    Very nice photo. Thanks for the info, I’ve seen it in my Sierra wanderings….but never knew what it was.

  • Daffodil Planter August 14, 2009, 5:08 pm

    Would you say that mule’s ear is stubbornly persistent?

  • tina August 14, 2009, 5:20 pm

    I would love to go to the high sierras just to see all the cool plants. This has to be one of them and what a great shot with the shadows silhouetted through the leaf.

  • Flowergardengirl August 14, 2009, 7:58 pm

    Mule’s Ear looks just like its name. I know a plant called Sow’s Ear too.

  • Pomona Belvedere August 15, 2009, 12:33 am

    Thanks for the photo compliments, always nice to know if it works…

    James, I ‘m glad I got the appeal of mule’s ear across to you, and I’m in total agreement: what draws my attention about mule’s ear is the leaves, especially in all their fall variety.

    Susie, glad I could fill you in. It was nameless to me for years, too, I’m sorry to say.

    DP – Hee haw!

    Tina, I’m glad you appreciate mule’s ear, people here don’t seem to think it’s so spectacular but I love it. Definitely you should go to the Sierras to plant-look sometime, compare to your own hills.

    Flowergardengirl, I’d be curious to see Sow’s Ear; I’ve never heard of it.

  • Bob Pool August 16, 2009, 7:55 pm

    Most of the pictures on this post could have been entered for your photo as they are all quite good. Being a member of the native plant society and in the middle of the worst drought in our history, I truely appreciate your love for the natives. If it wasn’t for the natives in my garden, there would be no color at all.

  • Pomona Belvedere August 17, 2009, 11:45 am

    Many thanks for the picture compliments; I think my having looked closely at plants for so many years without a camera helps. Glad to meet another native-lover; I do have non-natives in my garden but I so appreciate the natural garden I get to garden within.

  • Rothschild Orchid August 18, 2009, 7:19 am

    Lovely shot. What a fabulous plant! I’ve never seen it before but it does look just like a soft furry animals ear.

  • Mr. McGregor's Daughter August 20, 2009, 7:52 am

    Your entry is so cool! Prairie plants seem to look their best in the late afternoon/early evening light. Mule’s ear reminds me a lot of the Silphiums, Prairie Dock, Compass Plant and Cup Plant, with the large coarse leaves. And I so agree with you about proper grammar and the use of apostrophes.

  • Jean August 21, 2009, 12:18 pm

    Really great shot of the mule ear. And good timing too, since I just got back from a trip to CA and saw these plants up near Tahoe. I kept wondering what they were. By the way, I LOVE your post about garden hoses!

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