As summer hits it’s midpoint it is time to get ready for late summer berries. One of my favorites to forage for locally is salal berries. This native plant to the Pacific Northwest is usually seen in flower arrangements as decorating leaves. The leaves are thick and waxy and make a great color addition to flower arrangements everywhere. This plant is also a relative of the blueberry and produces a delicious berry. I eat it fresh and have used it to make wine and jam. The high pectine content of the berries does require some extra help to make a wine. Otherwise it will almost gel like a jam.
Its dark blue “berries” (actually swollen sepals like a blueberry) and young leaves are both edible, and are an effective appetite suppressant. Salal berries were a significant food resource for native people, who both ate them fresh and dried them into cakes. They were also used as a sweetener, and the Haida used them to thicken salmon eggs. The leaves of the plant were also sometimes used to flavor fish soup. More recently, Salal berries are used locally in jams, preserves and pies. They are often combined with Oregon-grape because the tartness of the latter is partially masked by the mild sweetness of Salal. There is so much naturally occurring pectin in the berry that when you make jam you do not need to add any to make it jell up. The jam is so dark that it is almost black in color.
Salal occurs in such high numbers that the chance of seeing plants on a hike anywhere west of the Cascades in Oregon is almost guarantied. This year I intend to pick enough that I can try to make at least a gallon of wine out of them. But even if I don’t they are a good addition to yogurt throughout the year if you freeze them. Or a dark jam to add to yogurt. Have I ever mentioned I love yogurt?
The plants can be found from Northern California up into southeast Alaska. If it is in the that area there is some around. The flavor of the berry changes depending on the soil conditions. If you find a spot where they taste great remember to go back year after year for them.
The plant itself also has been used for medicinal purposes. Salal leaf has a long history as a medicine for wounds, coughs, colds and digestive problems. The Klallam, Bella Coola and Quileute People have chewed salal leaves, and spit them on burns and sores. The Samish and Swinomish People have used the leaves for coughs and tuberculosis, while the Quinault People have used them for diarrhea and flu-like symptoms. Herbalist, Michael Moore mirrors Northwest Native People’s uses of salal in Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West when he says that, “The tea is astringent and anti-inflammatory, both locally to the throat and upper intestinal mucosa, and through the bloodstream, to the urinary tract, sinuses and lungs.”
If you are ever in the mood to try a unique flavored berry I highly recommend salal as a delicious one. As my normal word of warning if you are not 100% sure of what you are eating do not eat it!
Some useful books on foraging and using medicinal herbs in the area:
Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast This book by far is the one I use the most for identifying nearly everything.
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