Thursday, June 2, 2011

Wooly mule ears flowering on volcanic soils around Mt Peavine

The wooly mule ear (also spelled woolly mule ear) is a plant in the sunflower family (Asteraceae) that loves sunshine and volcanic soil, for example, the south-facing slopes of Mt. Peavine northwest of Reno. The flowers in the picture are growing next to the Halo Trail. They have large flower heads and soft-hairy, broad, erect leaves [1]. At this time of the year, they feel soft and smooth, but in fall, when dried up after a hot summer season (we have to wait and watch if that happens this year), they will have turned from silver-green to yellowish brown, will feel rough and crisp and make a rustling—often spooky—noise in the wind.

Sometimes, mule ears cover entire meadows or slopes. When you see such a field, you will—as Tim Hauserman noticed [2]—smell their strong odor.  Mule ears are also named wooly mule's ears, mountain mule ears and, scientifically, Wyethia mollis [3,4]. The reference to the mule, whose ears lend the plant its name, is always present. Mules are obviously inspiring animals. The mule deer is also named after the size and shape of the long ears of this enduring donkey-horse hybrid. And there is good chance that, on your next outdoors adventure in the Reno-Tahoe-Sierra Nevada area, you will see some of their namesakes (the American Mule Museum is going to be founded in Bishop, California: or a mule deer herd stepping over mule ears.

References and more 
[1] Laird R. Blackwell: Tahoe WildflowersA Month-by-Month Guide to Wildflowers in the Tahoe Basin and Surrounding Areas. A Falcon Guide, Morris Book Publishing, LLC, 2007; page 72.
[2] Tim Hauserman: The Tahoe Rim Trail. Wilderness Press, Berkeley, California, Fifth printing March 2004.
[3] USDA Plants Profile: Wyethia mollis A. Gray, woolly mule-ears [].
[4] Calflora: e: Wyethia mollis A. Gray, [].

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