Mule's Ears

  • Helianthella californica, a native wildflower in the sunflower family. Photo: Pete Veilleux
    Helianthella californica, a native wildflower in the sunflower family. Photo: Pete Veilleux
  • Wyethia angustifolia, or narrowleaf mule’s ears, a local perennial. Photo: Pete Veilleux
    Wyethia angustifolia, or narrowleaf mule’s ears, a local perennial. Photo: Pete Veilleux
  • Wyethia glabra, gray or coastal mule’s ears. Photo: Pete Veilleux
    Wyethia glabra, gray or coastal mule’s ears. Photo: Pete Veilleux
Mule's Ears

A plant that is definitely not easy in garden culture is Mule’s Ears (Wyethia species) and there are several look-alikes—all native California sunflowers. I recognized a very large patch of Mule’s Ears growing on a south facing slope in the open space east of my house.

At first I was confused about exactly which species it was because I noticed that some of the flowering stalks could be eighteen to twenty inches in height, and therefore seemed much more like Helianthella californica, another native sunflower which I had just become familiar with from my camping expeditions in Sonoma and Lake Counties.

Eventually, through a simple process of elimination, I was able to identify the plants growing on my hill as Narrow-Leaf Mule’s Ears (W. angustifolia). It could not be helianthella, a well-respected botanist told me, because it is simply not known to grow here in Marin! To distinguish it from Narrow-leaf Mule’s Ears, one has to compare the length of the leaf petioles, the width of the involucre and the length of the bracts, all elements that I did not have from both plants at the same time!

Gray Mule’s Ears (W. glabra) is not hard to distinguish from the narrow-leaf, because the leaf is broad and rounded at the ends, and the outer bracts of the involucre extend beyond the petals of the flower. The bracts of the narrow-leaf do not extend beyond the petals, and the leaves are much more linear, and end in a pointed tip.

Narrow-leaf Mule’s Ears is by far the most common in Marin, and so, over the years I have collected seeds and tried various methods to get them to germinate. The seeds responded when I pre-soaked them in warmish water for twelve hours, and used a soil mix with a Chamise charate mixed in. Germination occurred within a couple of weeks but even so, it was sparse, and the seedlings were not very vigorous, and so many did not survive the transplanting process. When I was able to grow them on to a good size in a container they would wither away in the garden. I tried getting them to grow in various places over the years, thinking that is was the microhabitat that was the crucial element.  

So, try and try again, and finally, even with some delays along the way: Success! As I was weeding an area just a week ago, I discovered a very nicely established Narrow-leaf Mule’s Ear growing on a sloping, slightly shaded area in the back garden. I will monitor it closely and with more practice, hope to perfect my propagation and transplanting techniques with this species.