Want to know what Salal is? Want to know how to grow it, how to eat it and how valuable it is? Read-on:
While clearing my yard I discovered in one corner a small and weak cluster of salal. I immediately recognized it as a local plant I grew up with, but was excited because I had recently read an article on how nutritious and plentiful the berries can be. As this small plant was growing where I intended to create a raised-bed, I thought I would leave it and learn more about it. Here is what I found:
Salal is from the heather family. It is an evergreen, flowering shrub native to the Pacific North West. It is also known as Gaultheria Shallon (in Great Britain where it was introduced) or simply Shallon. It typically grows low (but sometimes up to 16 feet) on the floor of coniferous forests. It has a high salt tolerability, so it is common along the coast. It has pink and white flowers that grow in a cluster and produce a blueberry-type fruit (in size, shape and colour).
Salal prefers an acidic soil of 5.5 to 7 and grows best in zones 8-10. It can be grown in a range of light conditions from full sun to full shade. Full sun can produce smaller plants, as they seem to prefer partial sun. It spreads via rhizomes, and can quickly take over a garden. I have found conflicting information about the quality of soil it prefers. Some sources say rich soil is required. Others point out that it quickly colonizes poor soil. I’ll have to try it out to see. It flowers in late spring, and fruits in summer.
I always assumed the berry was poisonous, until I saw this: Salal a superfood
It turns out Native Americans ate this regularly because of its abundance and nutrition. It was pounded into a cake, and used as a sweetener. More recently, people have used it regularly in jams and jellies, but usually combined with other fruit. The berries are incredibly rich in tannins and anti-oxidents. It is also mentioned in several sources that the young leaves are edible and mature leaves are sometimes used as a flavour in soups. There is also mention of it’s medicinal value, but there is little evidence. It is anti-inflammatory (as many plants are) and an astringent and may have other properties as well. In my experience with foraging, usually plants that are considered anti-inflammatory are only so because you are taking a small quantity; which means it can be toxic in large amounts and dangerous to pregnant women. I do not recommend making this tea, or foraging in general without more information and professional advice. Feel free to go nuts on the fruit, though! It’s a flavour that is hard to explain. I’ll suggest it has a black currant quality, and many have what I detect as a cinnamon flavour. “Weird” you’re thinking? I know, but trust me, they’re good.
As with all superfoods, someone is likely to start producing this commercially before the craze. That’s too risky an investment for me, so I’ll stick to growing it for the benefit of my families’ health. Throw a few berries in a smoothy, salad, or desert? Why not? But salal’s current value isn’t based on it’s nutrition; instead, it has been commercially grown for decades in the cut flower arrangement markets. The leaf is long-lasting, shiny dark green, with a lighter colour on the back side. That, combined with the sturdy stem, and year-round availability has made it a favourite among florists for decades.
Salal has become a host plant for the invasive and commercially-damaging Black Vine Root Weevil (BVRW). Similar to the damage you’d see by BVRW on rhododendrons and azaleas, you’ll find the same notching and defoliation in Salal. There is an easy solution to BVRW but it takes a year to see the results. Stratiolaelaps scimitus (Stratio) is a predatory mite commercially produced and available in North America, Europe and Central Asia. Putting as few as 25 mites per square foot (250/square meter) will result in successfully predation of all of the just-hatched grubs of the Root Weevil (first and second instars). The damage you see on leaves is done by adult weevils, so by applying Stratio, will prevent the next generation from inflicting much damage. In some parts of North America, the BVRW has one life cycle per year. Here on the coast, there may be as many as three. So get those Stratio in now! You can buy them here. And if you haven’t already, put stratio in houseplants for fungus gnat control and certainly out with your rhododendrons.
Salal can be dug up and moved, purchased, and grown by cuttings. So maybe you ought to try some out in your yard.
So there you have it! Who knew this abundant “weed” was so tasty and valuable…. oh, right, the Natives did, and for thousands of years. Maybe I’ll find some more treasured plants as I continue to clear my backyard.
One of my hobbies is brewing beer. Typically, I do high-quality, local ingredient versions of classic styles, like Pilsners, Stouts, British Ales…etc. However, every-once-in-a-while I venture into something a bit more extravagant. Nothing was more extravagant than the brewing of “Salish Sea Salal Berry Sour.”
This was a labour of love. I foraged for nearly 900g of salal berries. This took a few hours spread over two locations and two days. I can tell you right now that commercialization of raw berries is unlikely. The berry cluster at peak-ripeness is very sticky and the fruit does not pull from it’s little stem as easily as the stem plus from the main fruiting branch. Other than dehydrating them or pressing it into a juice, it would be a difficult task….as I found out.
I chose to make a “sour” with these because I remembered their flavour being tart and earthy. I didn’t want a fruity beer, I wanted something complex and wild. However, while tasting the raw berries I had forgotten how sweet they are. It’s a flavour I can’t really describe as it is very much unlike other fruit except maybe black currants. So I readjusted my beer recipe to include souring in the mash (extracting sugars from grains) and I made it very light (3%alcohol) because I didn’t know how much the Salal sugars would contribute to fermentation.
I started pulling all the small stems off, and 5 minutes later and a handful of berries in, I gave up. I sterilized them with a blast of boiling water, then threw them in the blender, stems and all. They did not juice! Instead it became a jelly instantly. Then I had to spoon it into a glass carboy to ferment since it had no will to flow through my funnel.
It was an ugly process. And as I left it to clear, it never did. It stayed opaque but bright purple/red. Ironically, while waiting for it to ferment we went camping at Rathtrevor Park in Parksville and while venturing out to a local pizza/micro brewery, I found a Salal beer on tap! Here I was thinking I was a ground-breaking genius. (However, theirs was not a sour and thin of flavour.)
Mine, however, ended up spectacular! And while I shared it freely, I reserved a few for friends who couldn’t visit (thanks again to Covid). And those beers that had aged in bottle another few months had cleared and the flavour was perfect. I had absolutely everyone asking for me to brew it again. But, alas! The berries were picked in the last week of July, and it’s a once a year event. (Maybe I’ll pick even more and freeze some.)
I’ll make this beer again, but my friends and family loved the flavour so much that I’ll spend more time foraging to make jams or jellies to give away. It’s easy to see why First Nations celebrated certain seasons, like the return of salmon to the rivers: Something like Salal ripening would have required all-hands-on-deck to ensure there was enough to get them through the year. To think, something so readily available is to vibrant, healthy and delicious. Salal is really a gift of the Salish Sea.
If you’re interested in my brewing, it is just a hobby, but set up like a small micro brewery with bottles, and 4 beers on tap. You can check out my Brewery Facebook site here. Below is my beer’s label.