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Salal, or Gaultheria shallon, is a shrub/subshrub of the heath family (Ericaceae) native to the West Coast of North America, including Alaska, California, Washington, and Oregon. It can also be found throughout British Columbia and was introduced in northwest Europe (USDA 2016; Flora 2016). Typically it can be found in the understory of coniferous forests in coastal regions below 2,500 feet in elevation . Shade or partly shady regions provide ideal growing conditions for salal. Preferring wet environments, this shrub requires high moisture in the soil and peat that it occupies. It cannot withstand hot, dry summers and, if subjected to prolonged heat, will become completely scorched (NPIN 2011).
G. shallon is a perennial, evergreen angiosperm with a flowering season ranging from April through July. The shrub has hairy pink or white blooms approximately 1 cm long, which hang down its stems in individual bell-shaped bulbs. These blooms develop into edible berries (which are actually fleshy sepals) ranging in color from reddish-blue to purple. Approximately 6 to 10 mm in diameter, the berries grow in clusters of 5 to15 berries at the end of the branches (Pojar and MacKinnon 2004). The leathery leaves are light green to a darker, olive green, are simple in structure, and emerge in an alternating pattern from the hairy stems. In the fall, salal’s egg-shaped leaves may change to a red or reddish-green tint. A rhizome root structure sends out lateral shoots that support the plant and help it spread (Tirmenstein 1990).
Salal is not invasive in the regions it inhabits, but it can grow in dense, impenetrable thickets. These thickets can be found within wet, dry, or boggy coniferous forests, rocky bluffs, and seashores and other coastal areas. Once established, it grows aggressively, so it is useful as a vegetative cover to restore banks suffering from erosion, cuts on roadways, and reclaimed ground. Coastal dunes and vulnerable watersheds can also be protected and allowed to heal with the rapid and stable growth of the shrub sheltering them. Unfortunately, often in these disturbed areas salal can also be fierce competition for several tree species, especially the Sitka spruce and Douglas fir. Salal takes up the water and nutrients that young saplings need to survive after a section of forest has been clear-cut (CABI 2016).
Salal provides food for several species of animal including birds and small mammals and is an important winter staple in the diet of black-tailed deer in Canada and Roosevelt elk in the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. It attracts many pollinators including butterflies, hummingbirds, and other birds (Tirmenstein 1990).
Humans also can consume its fruit in preserves or jams as well as fresh, dried, or cooked. The fruit is ripe August through September. Salal has played an important role in tribal communities, especially for the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest, since it is plentiful and able to be sold and traded. Today, G. shallon’ s evergreen leaves are used in commercial floristry (Flora 2016; Pojar and MacKinnon 2004) .