Ever-green, basic food, plant of perseverance.
Salal, a backdrop in Northwest woodlands, is so common that many people barely notice it. Its shiny deep-green leaves remain beautiful all year. Stems are long-lasting when cut and are a valued addition to floral arrangements. This mirrors salal berry’s qualities as a powerful preservative. They are loaded with vitamins and antioxidants that prevent degeneration and help us to live a long and sustaining life.
Other names: sala’xbupt, Makah. Gaultheria shallon
Identifying Salal: Salal is an evergreen shrub that grows in lush thickets in both evergreen forests and in sunny areas where there is moisture and good drainage. Plants grow to 5 feet tall. Leaves are thick, dark green on top and waxy. Spring flowers look like little white bells and are slightly sticky and hairy. Berries are a dull blue-black color when ripe and are also slightly hairy.
Harvesting and Preparation: Gather berries when they are deep blue, plump and tasty. The easiest way to harvest is to pull the entire pink stem of berries off, place them in a bag or basket, and then process them all at once. Pop the berries off by pinching them with your thumb and pointer finder instead of trying to pull them off. Gently rinse in a colander if the berries are dusty. Berries can be eaten fresh, added to smoothies, pies, jam, fruit leather and any other creative recipes you might conjure up.
For medicine, gather green healthy looking leaves in spring to summer. Cut stems and bundle them with rubber bands. Hang in a dry warm place out of sunlight. When the leaves are crackly when crushed, strip them off the branches and store them in a glass jar or plastic bag for later use. Before making tea, crush or cut the leaves. Use about one heaping tablespoon per cup of hot water and infuse for 20 minutes.
Eating Salal Berries
Salal is one of our most common and most overlooked berries. They are ripe during late summer – usually August and September. Flavor varies from delicious to bland and boring, depending on soil and sun conditions. Taste the berries before you gather them, and if they do not suit you, try traveling to a different bush. A short distance can make a big difference in taste.
It amazes me to hear how many people think salal berries are inedible or even poisonous. Admittedly, they are not quite as delicious as thimbleberries, huckleberries and other Northwest favorites, but they are readily available and have good flavor. My palate recognizes them as grape-like with an earthy and complex undertone. They are mealier than other berries, but can get really juicy if they are growing in the right conditions. I often add lemon juice to brighten their flavor.
Here is the special thing about salal – it has great preservative power. Salal berries are high in antioxidants and they dry really well. I use them as a base in making fruit leather – one of our favorite family snacks. It is easy to make and lasts for a year or more. I have found that if I mix about a third salal berries with other berries the fruit leather dries much faster and is less likely to spoil.
Salal berries were used in this way among Salish People. They were a staple food that could be mashed, dried into cakes and then stored and eaten in the winter months. The cakes were dried on cedar boards or skunk cabbage leaves (also called Indian wax paper). According to Erna Gunther in Ethnobotany of Western Washington, the Lower Chinook People’s salal loaves weighed as much as 10-15 pounds! Many people preferred to rehydrate the cakes in water or dip them into seal, whale or eulachon oil. Salal is still a beloved berry among many native families and I know several people who make delicious salal jam.
Humans are not the only ones to enjoy salal berries. A group of gatherers at Quinault reservation noticed an area of bushes where the berries had been removed. Close by, they saw a huge pile of bear poop. One man recounted a story of watching the largest bear he had ever seen eating salal in that same area. Many berry pickers say that they are accustomed with sharing the harvest with other creatures. You may be on one side of the patch, while the bears are on the other.
Berry Fruit Leather
I prefer to use about one-third to one-half salal berries to other types of tasty berries such as thimbleberry, strawberry, wild blackberry, huckleberry or blueberry. Salmonberries are too juicy to make fruit leather. Place berries in a blender and blend until smooth. Add honey to sweeten and a little squeeze of fresh lemon juice to bring out flavor. Fit parchment paper over a cookie sheet with sides. Pour blended berries onto the sheet and use a spatula to smooth them out to an even consistency of about a quarter inch. The berries can be dried in the sun or in the oven.
Sun drying: If it is hot and dry (this very rarely happens in Olympia), place the pan in the full sun, preferably in a windy spot. If there are flies or bugs, you can put cheesecloth over the berries. One friend places her fruit leather either on her car dash or in her greenhouse to amp up the heat and has great success. It will probably take 2-4 days to dry completely, so bring the berries in at night to prevent them from gathering dew. After the berries are mostly dried turn them over. Carefully peel the old parchment paper off and let the other side dry. When it is the consistency of fruit leather, cut the berry sheet into strips and store in plastic bags to prevent it from drying out completely.
You can also make beautiful little berry cakes in a traditional Salish manner by drying them on skunk cabbage leaves. Skunk cabbage is also called “Indian wax paper” and it does not impart its strong smell onto food at all.
Oven method: Place the berries in the oven on the lowest temperature (usually about 170 degrees) and leave the oven cracked so that water can evaporate off the berries. It will take 6-10 hours for the berries to dry. Flip the whole thing over when it is mostly dry. Carefully peel off the parchment paper and continue drying until it reaches a dry yet pliable consistency. If you have to leave, simply turn your oven off and place the fruit leather in a warm spot in the house with cheesecloth or a paper towel over it. Continue drying as you can.
Variation: Some people choose to cook their berries gently on the stovetop until they are reduced to a thick paste. While this helps speed up the drying process, it also compromises nutrients like Vitamin C in the berries.
Salal Leaf Medicine
Salal leaf has a long history as a medicine for wounds, coughs, colds and digestive problems. The Klallam, Bella Coola and Quileute People have chewed salal leaves and spit them on burns and sores. The Samish and Swinomish People have used the leaves for coughs and tuberculosis, while the Quinault People have used them for diarrhea and flu-like symptoms. Herbalist, Michael Moore mirrors Northwest Native People’s uses of salal in Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West when he says that, “The tea is astringent and anti-inflammatory, both locally to the throat and upper intestinal mucosa, and through the bloodstream, to the urinary tract, sinuses and lungs.” You can imagine that this would be useful for a wide variety of ailments including coughs, diarrhea, gastritis, colic or bladder irritation. Although I tend to go to other medicines for specific conditions, salal is effective and easy to come by. Sometimes our most common plants, the ones we barely notice, are our best everyday medicines.