Mule ears, mule’s ear, wooly mule ear, mountain mule ear – all are names for the bright yellow wildflower that carpets the sides of hills in Northern California, Northwest Nevada and Southeast Oregon with color in the spring and early summer. Wyethia mollis is a perennial, native to Northeastern California, that grows in the well-drained soil of open meadows, especially those with some sagebrush, and unshaded forest clearings.
Mule ears grow from a tough, fibrous tap root. The huge lance-shaped or oval leaves are coated in wooly white hairs that give the plant a grayish appearance. These hairs are sometimes lost or decrease in quantity with age. The bright yellow mule ears flower resembles a sunflower, understandable since both plants belong to the same family, the aster family. A mule ears flower is a tightly packed head of numerous small flowers. The individual flowers in the head are of two types, the ray (outer flat) flowers and the disk flowers (inner). The blossoms are either solitary or can occur in clusters of two or three heads.
The seeds of mule ears are edible and taste like sunflower seeds. I find these tasty seeds too small for much more than an occasional nibble while on the trail. The tap root is also edible if cooked. I personally find the tap root too stringy, even after prolonged cooking, to justify the effort. But it is fun to know that you can eat parts of mule ears. Native Americans used a poultice of crushed roots or crushed leaves to treat sprains and swelling.
The genus name, Wyethia, honors Captain Nathaniel Wyeth, an early 19th Century trapper and explorer of Western North America. Mollis, meaning soft, is an appropriate species name.
These mule ears were photographed along Hat Creek in Shasta County CA.