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.
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.