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Mule’s Ear Garden (Wyethia mollis)

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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*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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