Are Salal berries edible? Why yes they are!

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.  

The berries grow in rows along a main stem.
The berries grow in rows along a main stem.

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.  

Flowers and unripe berries
Flowers and a mix of ripe and unripe berries

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:

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Oregon Mussels

Small bed of mussels on a rock
Small bed of mussels on a rock

Another tasty treat that is easy to go out and harvest is the common mussel that grow on almost any rocky outcropping on the coast.  All you need to harvest them is a pair of sturdy gloves and a shellfish permit ($7 per person).  The current limit in Oregon for mussels is 72 per person.  Before you even head to the beach make sure there is no closures for on the coast for bacterial toxins.  Since mussels are filter feeders they will pick up anything that is floating in the water.  These toxins can be deadly so always make sure that harvesting is open.  The hotline that you can call is 800-448-2474.  You can also check on the ODFW website for a recent list of closures. Stay away from the red tide!!

There are two different species of mussels that you will find in Oregon,  Mytilus edulis and some Mytilus Californianus. They adhere themselves to rocky outcroppings of basalt, which dot the beaches through the central coast, and become more common as you head southward toward California. My most recent batch came from the jetty in Florence at the mouth of the Siuslaw river. In your search for a good spot to get mussels please be aware that there are several marine sanctuary along the coast where it is illegal to remove any animal. Mussels along the open ocean will have a different taste then those along an estuary.  Try them both and see the taste difference.

After you find a good place to harvest your mussels you then have to figure out how you are going to remove them from the rocks.  A cheap knife is a good way to cut the threads that hold them to rocks.  You can also simply pull them from the rocks if you would like but after a couple dozen you might be a little tired of pulling on them.  Don’t use a crowbar or axe to get them off.  You will do more damage to the mussel bed then you want to.  Mussels can be harvested at any low tide.  Be watchful of the ocean while you are harvesting them.  You do not want to get hit by a sneaker wave and pulled off the rocks into the ocean.

Mussels right after they opened from their steam bath
Mussels right after they opened from their steam bath

Now that you have your harvest it is time to cook them up.  The easiest way to cook them is to scrub up the mussels to remove any loose pieces that might be on it. Then put them in a steamer basket and cook for about five minutes.  If they do not open within five minutes they may be dead, and you should throw them out.  Eating bad shellfish can make you extremely sick.  After they are cooked use a fork to remove them from the shells and prep them for eating.  There are a lot of varieties in how you steam them up.  Adding a cup of white wine and some shallots to the steam water will give a great flavor to the mussels.  I like to steam them plain and dip them in garlic butter.

Mussels in a garlic butter sauce
Mussels in a garlic butter sauce

Spring time Dandelion uses

Dandelion boardering the yard.
Dandelion bordering the yard.

Spring is a season of renewal and new beginnings.  All of the trees break out in bright green growth as the leaves unfurl from their winter sleep.  Ahh the joys of spring, I can go on and on about it.  It is by far my favorite time of the year.  One of the great things about spring is if you like to forage and try some of the bounty of nature you can get many delicious greens.

The easiest one for anyone to find is what many people consider an annoying weed.  The common dandelion is the easiest of all edibles to find.  The plant is native to Eurasia, but was brought by settlers as a hardy green to grow and eat.  Dandelions are found on all continents and have been gathered since prehistory, but the varieties cultivated for consumption are mainly native to Eurasia. A perennial plant, its leaves will grow back if the tap root is left intact. To make leaves more palatable, they are often blanched to remove bitterness.  The bitterness is mostly in the leaves late in the growing season when water starts getting in short supply.  In the spring it is only mildly bitter and makes a great addition to salads.  I am actually thinking of growing them on purpose. Every part of the plant can be used for something.

The flower petals, along with other ingredients, are used to make dandelion wine. This is very very strong, but also very good. The ground, roasted roots can be used as a caffeine-free dandelion coffee. I add mine to roasted chicory root for a tasty coffee alternative.   Dandelion was also traditionally used to make the traditional British soft drink dandelion and burdock, and is one of the ingredients of root beer. Also, Dandelions were once delicacies eaten by the Victorian gentry mostly in salads and sandwiches. Dandelions leaves contain abundant vitamins and minerals, especially vitamins A, C and K, and are good sources of calcium, potassium, iron and manganese.

They grow everywhere.  Even in the cracks in the walkway
They grow everywhere. Even in the cracks in the walkway

Roasted dandelion root is a simple thing to make if you are interested in trying to do it yourself.  First gather up a dozen or so plants with as much of the root attached as you can get.  The two-year old plant will have a nice large root on it.  Remember to save the leaves and any flowers for a nice salad or to add to a sandwich. Cut the individual roots into 1-inch sections and cover with water. White sap will leach from the roots causing the water to cloud. Agitate the roots with your hands to remove any remaining soil and to remove the sap. Pour off the water and repeat the process until the water is clear. If you skip this step you will have a much more bitter tea.  Process the roots in a food processor until they are coarsely chopped.  Spread a 1/2-inch layer of chopped dandelion roots on a cookie sheet, and set the oven at 250 degrees, leaving the oven door open a crack to allow moisture to evaporate. Roast the dandelion roots for 2 hours or until the roots are the color of coffee grounds. Stir the dandelion roots every 15 to 20 minutes to allow them to dry evenly. Remove from the oven when the roots are the color of ground coffee. Allow to cool and store in glass jars. You can further grind them with a coffee grinder, but if you don’t have one, that’s okay too, as they can be used as is.

Dandelion root has long been known for its healing and medicinal effects. It has long been thought that dandelion root is a liver tonic, and can be used to detox the body of toxins; however, research does not support this at this time. I wish they would do more studies on medicinal herbs. What dandelion root can do for you is treat digestive disorders and constipation, and stimulate appetite. Those taking insulin or medication to reduce blood sugar levels and those taking diuretics or lithium should consult their physician before consuming dandelion root. The root has a mild diuretic effect when consumed (as does the coffee you are using it to replace). Otherwise, the herb is considered safe for human consumption.