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!
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 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.