Elise Krohn, Wild Foods and Medicines Program Director
August is my favorite month. I love the heat, the culminating ripeness of fruits and vegetables in the garden, and especially the berries that concentrate all the sunshine and sweetness of summer. Salal is one of our most common and overlooked berries. It is found in fields and woodlands, and will also grow well in yards and gardens. The dark blue berries are loaded with energizing nutrients including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and even good quality fats that give us endurance. Our family enjoys snacking on them as we walk on nature trails, and we harvest them in larger quantities to make fruit leather and shrubs (drinking vinegars).
Salal (Gaultheria shallon) is a common understory plant with shiny, deep-green leaves that remain beautiful throughout the year. It grows in lush thickets in shady conifer forests and in sunny areas with moisture and good drainage. Plants grow to about five feet tall. Leaves are thick, egg-shaped, dark green on top, and waxy. Spring flowers look like little white bells and are slightly sticky and hairy. Berries are a dull blue-black color when ripe and are also slightly hairy. They have a five-pointed star shape on the underside.
The flavor of salal berries varies from delicious to bland and boring, depending on soil and sun conditions. Gather when they are deep blue, plump, and tasty—usually between July and August. Taste the berries before you gather them, and if they do not suit you, try traveling to a different bush a little ways away. The easiest way to harvest is to pull the entire pink stem of berries off, place them in a bag or basket, and process them all at once. Pop the berries off by pinching them at the base with your thumb and pointer finger, or pull them off sideways instead of trying to pull them off straight down from the stem. If the berries are dusty, gently rinse in a colander. Berries can be eaten fresh or added to smoothies, pies, jam, fruit leather, and sauces.
Salal berries are highly prized among Coast Salish People as a staple food that can be dried and enjoyed in the winter months. The berries are traditionally cooked, poured into wooden frames on cedar boards or skunk cabbage leaves to make “berry cakes,” are dried near a fire, and then stored in boxes for later use. Salal is still a beloved berry among many Native families and is made into jam, fruit leather, and desserts.
Berry Fruit Leather
Dried salal in the form of cakes or fruit leather is an important Native food that Salish People have long-valued for demanding physical activities like traveling and hunting. Children equate this to fruit roll-ups, and will likely enjoy it as a tasty and energizing snack. Adding as little as 25% salal to mixed berry fruit leather will increase the shelf life.
You Will Need: Berries, a blender, a cookie sheet, parchment paper, lemon juice, honey.
Mix about ⅓ to ½ salal berries to other types of tasty berries such as thimbleberry, strawberry, blackberry, huckleberry, or blueberry. Place berries in a blender and blend until smooth. Squeeze a little fresh lemon juice to bring out the berry flavors and add honey to sweeten if desired. Fit parchment paper over a cookie sheet with sides. Pour blended berries onto the sheet and use a spatula to smooth them out to an even consistency of about a quarter inch. Place berries in a food dehydrator on the lowest setting or in an oven on the lowest temperature (usually about 170 degrees). If you are using an oven, leave the oven cracked with a wooden spoon so water can evaporate off the berries. It will take 6–10 hours for the berries to dry. Flip the whole thing over when it is mostly dry. Carefully peel off the parchment paper and continue drying until it reaches a dry, yet pliable, consistency. Store in plastic bags or parchment paper in a cool, dry place.
Shrubs are concentrated syrups made from vinegar, sugar, fruit, and herbs. They are also known as drinking vinegars and are tart, sweet, and thirst quenching. Shrubs are very strong and are usually added in small amounts to water, soda, or other drinks. Apple cider vinegar is often used in shrubs because it is nutritious and inexpensive. Other types of vinegars like brown rice, white balsamic, wine, and coconut can be used as well. Once vinegar is diluted with fruit juice, it must be refrigerated. Shrubs will last for several months to a year.
There are several ways to make berry shrubs, including cooking the fruit or processing it cold. We prefer the cold method because it brings out the flavors of the fruit.
- 1 cup salal berries
- ½ cup sugar
- Zest from 1 organic lemon
- 1 tablespoon dried mint (or 3 bags peppermint tea)
- 1 cup vinegar
- Place salal berries, sugar, and lemon zest in a bowl. Mash the fruit with a fork or slotted spoon. The sugar will help pull the juice from the fruit.
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a lid and place in the refrigerator for several hours to a day.
- Pour the vinegar over the fruit, add the peppermint (remove herb from tea bags), and mash again. Let it sit for several hours.
- Pour the fruit mixture through a strainer and mash the fruit to get as much juice out as possible, or strain it with muslin cloth.
- Bottle the shrub in a glass jar, label, and keep in the refrigerator for up to three months. Add a tablespoon to water or fizzy water for a refreshing beverage. You can also use the shrub in salad dressing and sauces.
Salal berries are loaded with vitamins and antioxidants that help us to live a long and sustaining life. Tiny seeds in the berries contain Omega-3 fatty acids and protein so you feel satiated when you eat them.
Salal leaves are also useful medicine for wounds, coughs, colds, and digestive problems. The leaves can be made into a poultice to stop bleeding, tighten inflamed skin, and heal wounds. Dried salal leaf tea can ease sore throats, coughs, and digestive inflammation, including diarrhea. To dry the leaves, cut the stems and bundle them with rubber bands. Hang in a dry, warm place out of sunlight. When the leaves are crackly when crushed, strip them off the branches and store them for later use. Before making tea, crush or cut the leaves. Use a heaping tablespoon per cup of hot water and let sit for 20 minutes.
Learning from Salal– Endurance
Salal demonstrates endurance, which is the capacity of something to last or to withstand wear and tear. Salal is built for our Northwest climate and can survive intense weather including hot sun, driving rain, and harsh wind. It has thick, waxy evergreen leaves. Salal sprigs are commonly used in floral arrangements because they last a long time. Plants grow in tight communities, with each plant supporting the others.
Eating salal berries gives us physical endurance. Nutrients including vitamins, minerals, protein, good quality fats, and natural sugars give us both short-term energy and promote long-term resilience. As you get to know salal, you might consider asking yourself:
- What foods and beverages give me strength and long-term health?
- What activities build my endurance? (Examples might include exercise, outdoor time, rest, creative projects)
- What skills help me to endure through emotional challenges?