Sunday, December 21, 2008

Our Little Known Friend, Salal

Salal(emphasis on the second syllable) is a plant that either you know fairly well or never heard of. It is used in the florist industry as a stage for the true stars-the flowers.The leaves are a medium green and it has no thorns, tears easily when the stem must be shortened, lasts as long as the flowers will, and doesn't wilt but dries in position should the arrangement sit for days. It is available year round for modest cost. The people struggling to live in the wetter and poorer regions of the Pacific Northwest can always pick salal and other forest products and make an okay if water-soaked living. Its Latin name is Gautheria shallon, and in England they call it shallon or Gaultheria. The leaves are astringent and the tea made thereof can ease mild inflammations of the mucus membranes, the digestive and urinary systems, and heartburn.
The reason I am writing of it is because I love the fruit and stuff myself with it every year when it ripens and there is so much of it around here that goes unnoticed, unpicked and wasted. Those who live where it isn't grown may be out of luck-if you come to the Seattle area or Alaska, British Columbia, Northern California or Oregon, be sure to look for it and enjoy the flavor and healthful benefits it affords. It has been carried elsewhere in the USA and overseas. Britain has some problems with too much of it and it can be found in Europe and the Orient.
It grows best at the edge of forests, and likes the acid soil and copious water we have here. It is planted in many sites that are developed as condos and office parks. It is sometimes planted in too sunny and dry locations which burns the leaves and they are too ugly, dry and holey to use for floral arrangements when this happens. The leaves of many stands have holes and this prevents them from being collected, but they make fine berries everywhere, those in sunny spots ripening earlier.
The plants grow in clusters, and once you learn the identification cues they can be seen everywhere. The leaves are about 21/2 to 4 inches in length, slightly darker than medium green when healthiest, with many brown and yellow edges and holes in drier and sunnier areas. They grow without thorns, and are oval in shape. The underside is lighter. The thin woody stems have a slight zigzag to them which is more pronounced in the flower stems. The flowers first appear in May but can be seen even into the fall in the lower elevations. The flower stems are up to about 4 inches long and the littles blossoms are at the joint of each zig and zag. So there will be from 4-9 little bells, white or pink, pendant(hanging), and each will be where the little stem changes direction to the next flower and the berries form in the same place of course. The berries are actually swollen sepals, but for all intents they are just berries. They are remarkably similar to blueberries(which are related) but darker, and slightly milder. I have seen blueberries that were more profusely covered but picking salal berries is much quicker, and they are vastly easier to find and exploit than blueberries. I find a ripe stand and pick the larger ones off in little stems of from 4-9 and then pick off the dried floral remnants and the occasional rotten or dried fruit or bug and then eat the good ones at one bite so a person can eat about a pound in twenty minutes from a good stand. The berries are just bursting with antioxidants from the dark juice inside, which will stain your tongue dark purple. The darker fruits carry more antioxidants than lighter colored fruits as the darker dyes are related to vitamins. A source mentioned that many pioneer families would mix them with Oregon grapes to make a more intensely flavored jam or jelly. I have never liked any of the Oregon grapes I have eaten fresh(too sour), but I have enjoyed the jelly from both plants. I will have to try making the combination jam next year!

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