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What Is Salal?

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  • Written By: Dee S.
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 08 March 2014
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Salal, also commonly called Gaultheria shallon Pursh or Oregon wintergreen, is a berry-producing shrub native to North America. It is specifically found in California, Alaska, and across the Pacific Northwest. It grows best in climates that are warm and moist, but can survive in dry climates as well. The shrub grows from 1.3 to 10 feet (.39 to 3.05m) tall and has shiny, thick, leather-like leaves that are dark green in color. Initially used by the Native American Indians, salal is used for a variety of medical purposes, such as a treatment for diarrhea, coughs, inflammation and heartburn.

Small flowers grow in white, rose, or pink clusters on salal. The flowers develop into berry-like sepals that are usually red, purple, or dark blue in color, depending on the season. These tiny berries have small hairs covering the flesh and are edible in the summer and fall. Many people claim the berries are quite tart and others claim they are similar to blueberries, but with a mild, almond-like flavor. The sweetest berries are harvested during the fall, usually after the first frost.

Historically, the people native to the Northwestern portion of the United States used salal for a variety of purposes. They ate the berries fresh or mashed them into bread or cakes. The leaves of the shrub were often mixed with other plants and smoked. In addition, they made tea from the leaves to treat diarrhea, coughs, and tuberculosis.

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Many people believe the berries of the salal shrub are too mild, so they mix them with other berries to make jams, preserves, and jellies. The oils from the leaves are often used to create a wintergreen flavoring as well. Marinade, salad dressing, and wine can also be made from the salal berries. There are many recipes on the Internet for those interested in adding a different flavor to their meals.

Like the Native Americans, many herbalists prescribe the leaves for use in tinctures and teas. The leaves are still recommended to lower inflammation of the bladder and to treat heartburn, ulcers, indigestion, fever, cramping, and to reduce inflammation of the sinuses. In addition, the leaves can be made into a poultice to treat insect stings and bites.

If the conditions are right, it is easy to grow salal. In fact, once it takes hold, it grows very thick, almost like a thicket. It lives for a few years, but new shoots are always taking hold of the area. As a result, it is quite prolific.

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Discuss this Article

anon292640
Post 8

I'm debating whether I should try to grow it. I live in agri zone 5. I've seen a lot of sites that say it is hardy only to zone 6 and only one that says it will grow in zone 5. Plus, I don't have much shade in my yard. The group of houses of which mine is a part were built in an old corn field, not very many years ago, and the trees are all still pretty small.

amysamp
Post 7

@speechie - It does sound like salal is the plant for you! From what I have read about it, it is a Northwest plant but it truly does grow in amazingly bad soil.

The catch as you can imagine is that if it has the combo of dry soil and too much sun - it grows but just is not as vibrant.

So on your next cross-country road trip, leave some room for some salal, and find out for yourself - you might just be the talk of the neighborhood. I have read a great suggestion for salal, put it next to a large tree.

If you wanted to be fancy landscape-wise about it you could even plant it around the entire trunk. Here it could grow up to six feet! And the berries would add a bit of color amidst that dark or light tree trunk.

Speechie
Post 6

I live in North Carolina and have a ridiculously brown thumb. I most recently killed a fern. Yep, those plants that pretty much can be left alone and enjoy a long happy life - I killed it!

So I enjoy hearing about plants that are prolific. The only plants I have had much luck with are the ones people describe as "weed-like" or that will "take-over," these plants if placed in my care will not take over, but stay at a nice normal size.

And the only two of these kinds of plants that have endured my care are rosemary and mint.

Because the weather here is so different from Washington and Oregon, I am not going to keep my hopes up that I will see a salal leaf here anytime soon, but has anyone heard of a salal or variety of salal that grew in North Carolina?

Bertie68
Post 5

Many of the Native American tribes were certainly ingenious about using what they had at hand. It sounds like they used every part of the salal bush that wasn't poisonous. If they didn't eat it plain, they mixed it in another food, and they used parts of the plant for medicinal purposes.

They used parts of the salal bush to treat many common ailments. And these treatments are still used today.

I'm sure these useful plants were well protected by the Native Americans.

I'm curious to know how the salal berry stacks up on the list of most nutritious fruits. They are dark colored berries so that may be a clue.

Esther11
Post 4

I used to visit my aunt, who lived on a hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Washington State. There were salal bushes all over the hillside. They grew like crazy. My aunt and I used to make cute arrangements with the salal leaves and wild flowers found in the area.

At the end of the summer, the salal berries were ripe and ready to be picked and made into jelly. If I was down at my aunt's at this time, I would help her pick berries and make the salad jelly. She loved it and gave lots of jars away. I didn't care for it - the salal berries don't have a lot of flavor, like raspberries, strawberries and blueberries do. To me, they are on the bland side.

andee
Post 3

I work in a florist shop and we use salal leaves often in many kinds of floral arrangements. I have used dried salal and fresh salal leaves and have never been disappointed.

Maybe it's because I am around fresh flowers all the time, but I never get tired of the look and smell of them.

One of the ways I use salal most often is with a bouquet of long stemmed roses. The dark green, glossy leaves of the salal really look beautiful with any color of rose. They hold up well also and will last much longer than the roses do.

sunshined
Post 2

I have a large, dried floral wreath that has some salal leaves mixed in with some dried roses, hydrangeas and celosia.

The salal leaves are perfect for dried flower arrangements because the leaves look so natural and the green color goes with anything else you want to add to it.

I have had this wreath for many years, and other than the dust it collects when it is hanging on the wall, looks the same as the day I bought it.

bagley79
Post 1

My sister lives in Washington, and has salal growing in several places in her yard. She likes to grow it as a ground cover because she has several places where she needs some fill in plants.

It spreads quickly and will grow pretty tall if you let it. She keeps hers pruned back so it doesn't get too tall and thick. It grows in just about any kind of soil, and since they get quite a bit of rain, it always thrives wherever she plants it.

She doesn't harvest the berries, but enjoys the color they add to the plant. The small flowers and colorful berries are a nice compliment to the variegated leaves.

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