Salal (Gaultheria shallon)

November 13, 2008

  • Story and Artwork by Brian F. Harrison

       On everyone’s list of Top Ten Plants That Define the Pacific Northwest, you’ll probably find Sitka spruce, red alder, hemlock, Douglas fir and western red cedar. But look between and beneath those fine trees and you’ll likely encounter another Top Ten contender: the salal, more humble maybe, but ubiquitous in northwest forests, clearcuts, roadsides, and indeed everywhere it can spread its rhizomes.

       Thriving over an enormous area from Alaska right down into southern California, from mountain slopes to the edge of the sea, salal has staked its claim as the iconic understory plant of our region.

       Everyone knows salal, either as a backyard plant providing cover and food for wildlife, or as the shrub that intertwines so tightly with its neighbors as to be impenetrable to a hiker or steelheader. You might know it from florists’ arrangements, its tough oval-shaped leaves providing a backdrop for showier flowers. The name ‘salal’ is derived from the Chinook word for the plant, recorded in their famous journals by William Clark as ‘Shele wele’ and by Meriwether Lewis as ‘Shal-lun.’ Our scientific species name shallon comes from Lewis’s name for the plant.

       Salal is a member of the Heath family (Ericaceae), cousin to huckleberries, manzanita, kinnikinnik and heathers. These woody evergreen bushes are covered with leathery leaves serrated on the edges. In mid-spring, pink urn-shaped flowers bloom, with a delicate fringe around the lower margin. Their stems bend down as they develop, suspending the flowers straight down. In late summer, the flowers evolve into prodigious numbers of dark purple fruits, each containing many seeds.

       An attractive and useful plant, salal was once treated as a weed, scorned in suburbia for the very traits that have since made it the darling of the landscaper and developer.

       The shrub has been recognized in England as an ornamental landscape treasure since botanist David Douglas introduced it there in 1828. Douglas, of fir fame, visited the lower Columbia region in 1825 on a botanical expedition to collect and describe plants new to science. After a year’s voyage from England on board the Hudson’s Bay Company supply ship William and Ann he arrived at Cape Disappointment at the mouth of the Columbia River and made his first scientific observations: “On stepping on the shore Gaultheria Shallon was the first plant I took in my hands. So pleased was I that I could scarcely see anything but it.”

       Not surprisingly, the abundant fruits of the salal provided its chief attraction to Native peoples throughout its range. Any compendium of Pacific coast ethnobotany lists the salal berry, fresh or dried, as a prized food of every Native group studied from Alaska into California: Bella Coola, Klallam, Tsimshian, Karok, Wakashan, Kwakiutl, Makah, Okanagon, Pomo, Quileute, Quinault, Salish, Skagit, Skokomish, Snohomish, Chinook, Swinomish, the list continues.

       Everyone enjoyed the fruits-both fresh and preserved for winter use. Cakes of berries were dried and stored; dipping them in whale or seal oil restored the sweet, chewy seedy flavor, adding vitamins and flavor to a fish-heavy winter diet.

       Captain William Clark described the salal fruit as “a Deep purple about the Size of a Small cherry called by them Shal lun,” which the Chinook “prise highly and make use of as food to live on.” His colleague Meriwether Lewis wrote that, “the natives either eat these berrys when ripe immediately from the bushes or dryed in the sun or by means of their sw[e]ating kilns; very frequently they pound them and bake them in large loaves of 10 or fifteen pounds; this bread keeps very well during one season and retains the moist jeucies of the fruit much better than by any other method of preservation. this bread is broken and stired in could water until it be sufficiently thick and then eaten; in this way the natives most generally use it.-”

       Clark described tasting a syrup and fruit soup made from dried salal berries by the method Lewis described: “in the eveng an old woman presented a bowl made of a light Coloured horn a kind of Surup made of Dried berries which is common to this Countrey which the natives Call Shele wele  this Surup I thought was pleasent, they Gave me Cockle Shells to eate a kind of Seuip (soup) made of bread of the Shele well berries mixed with roots …”.

       Astoria fur trader Gabriel Franchere in his 1820 memoir wrote that salal fruit “is not of a particularly fine flavor, but it is wholesome, and one may eat a quantity of it without inconvenience. The natives make great use of it; they prepare it for winter by bruising and drying it; after which it is moulded into cakes according to fancy and laid up for use.”

       James Swan, living on Shoalwater Bay in 1852, also documented the Chinook method of preserving the fruit: “It is excellent cooked in any form, and is dried by the Indians, and pressed into cakes containing some five or six pounds, which are covered with leaves and rushes, so as to exclude the air, and then put away in a dry place for winter’s use.”

       In addition to the widespread consumption of salal as fresh or preserved food and a spice, it had a number of recorded medicinal uses. Northwest coast Natives used salal leaves as a poultice for cuts and burns, an infusion for indigestion, colic, and diarrhea, for respiratory distress from colds or tuberculosis, and as a convalescent tonic. (Note: these are recorded traditional uses, and may be ineffective or harmful.) Leaves were also blended for smoking with kinnikinnik, and berries used as a stain for wooden artifacts and baskets. One Vancouver Island tribe encouraged newlyweds to eat the larger salal leaves to ensure the birth of baby boys.

       It may not serve the latter function, but the humble salal should be honored for its contribution to the Native diet and its modern use in landscapes and florists’ arrangements. And I can attest that the berries make a fine pie and jelly, though I haven’t yet tried Captain Clark’s Surup or Seuip.

    Brian would like to thank Nancy Eid for her botanical assistance.