Undergrowth Underdog: Salal as Superfood & More

An essential part of coastal forest ecosystems, salal (Gaultheria shallon) is a hardy evergreen shrub with bright green, waxy, lemon-shaped leaves, with berries harvested in summer and early fall.

words :: Carmen Kuntz.

The thick undergrowth of B.C.’s rainforest is seldom looked upon fondly. Devil’s club can tear skin (or a raincoat) and chest-high sword fern will turn any forest into a labyrinth. Don’t even start with the slash alder. Peaceful hiking can quickly become brutal bushwhacking with so many species stretching for the sun. But there is one friendly native plant that is so ubiquitous it is often stepped over—salal.

An essential part of coastal forest ecosystems, salal (Gaultheria shallon) is a hardy evergreen shrub with bright green, waxy, lemon-shaped leaves. Abundant throughout coastal BC, salal occupies the understory of coniferous forests as ground cover or small bushes. It can grow in thickets up to five metres high, forming a riparian shield buffering old-growth forests from the Pacific’s spray and storms.

Salal Berries: Punching Above Their Weight Class

But it isn’t the hearty stems, the sturdy leaves, or even the urn-like pinkish-white flowers that bloom in spring that allow salal to punch above its flora weight class. It’s the berries.

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“Salal berries were a staple food of Indigenous people up and down the coast,” says Nancy Turner, ethnobotanist and professor emeritus at the University of Victoria. Turner has studied BC First Nations’ connection to coastal plants since the early 1980s and considers salal a “cultural keystone species.” This is a key feature of a community’s identity and a species that influences social systems and practices such as traditions, diet, medicines and material items.

“Salal berries were a staple food of Indigenous people up and down the coast.” —Nancy Turner

“Berries were harvested in summer through early fall,” she says. “They were eaten fresh but also cooked into a jam-like consistency and dried in the sun into cakes.” These cakes were then stored for winter, providing an important and vitamin-rich year-round food source. In other words, an abundant superfood.

Contemporary research has confirmed what songbirds, deer, bear and Indigenous people have known for millennia. Namely, these small berries are packed with nutrients. In fact, research shows salal berries contain roughly five times more tannin levels and three to four times greater antioxidant capacity than blueberries. Today, the salal berry is an ingredient in B.C. wines and spirits, and in homemade jellies and desserts.

Turner adds that the leathery salal leaves provided medicinal poultices and the tough branches rudimentary whisks. Traditional pit cooking utilized leafy branches to line the pit walls and also to separate layers of food, providing structure but also flavouring. Salal leaves and branches provided a grill and ‘bay leaf’ in one.

An Unsustainable Harvest?

While Coastal First Nations understand sustainable harvesting, the message hasn’t quite translated to contemporary colonialists. These days it’s not uncommon to see pick-up trucks parked on logging roads with cab-high piles of salal tarped down like a massive balloon. Salal is often illegally and unsustainably harvested for the floral industry. (Those hearty green leaves give a long shelf life as filler for bouquets and arrangements.) This has put salal at the forefront of a decade-long debate about the harvest and regulation of non-timber forestry products. Few realize that the foliage you bike or hike past on local trails may one day be wrenched from the earth to become another bohemian wedding bouquet.

Bear superfood, your superfood. Photo: Adam Tavender

Superfood Struggles

Extreme seasonal weather changes create further challenges for salal. Last spring, UBC’s Faculty of Forestry received a flood of messages from local residents who observed the normally bright green leaves turning brown and brittle.

“It’s one thing for the older leaves to die, but when the whole shoot is dying off, including the young leaves, that’s really concerning,” says Turner. She adds that some scientists theorize a disease or fungus could be the culprit, while others point to climate—a dry winter or uncharacteristic warm spell followed by deep cold. Further research is underway to learn what a changing climate means for salal and other local species.

Turner is hopeful. “Nature is resilient. And salal is an amazing shrub that can spread through its seeds and sprout up from its roots. Even if there is just a little bit left in the ground, it can re-establish itself.”

Superfood, cultural keystone, wedding decoration or dessert ingredient, salal is more than just a plant to step over. It’s one of many reasons to slow down and take in the environment with a little more curiosity and consideration. To know your playground closely is to become a steward and protector of it. A little plant like salal is a reminder to not take any part of B.C.’s coastal ecosystem for granted. —ML

(N.B.: Never eat any wild forest berries until you consult a plant ID book like Pojar and Mackinnon’s Plants of Coastal B.C. or enrol in a wild edibles course.)

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