Sálal: Beauty of the Pacific Northwest
Gaultheria shallon Pursh 1813
Salal has been an important food for the peoples of the Pacific Northwest for thousands of years. Meriwether Lewis found this to be true during his monumental expedition to the western coast in 1805. Attempting to communicate with the locals using their trade language, called Chinook jargon, Lewis ascertained that the name of the plant was shallon. Lewis’ specimens were sent to Benjamin Smith Barton in Pennsylvania. Barton was more interested in medicine than botany by that time, so he delegated the cataloging of plant specimens to his student Frederick Traugott Pursh, a German immigrant. Pursh took it upon himself to publish a complete record of North American plants, including Lewis’ specimens, which he finished in the mid-1810s. Pursh gave the salal the specific epithet of shallon, because of Lewis’ pronunciation of the name. However, when the Scottish botanist David Douglas arrived in the same area in 1825, he noted that the proper pronunciation should have been salal, not shallon. Douglas introduced salal to Britain in 1828, where it became a popular ornamental shrub.
In nature, salal is exclusive to the Pacific Northwest, from Alaska to mid-California. I grew up on Vancouver Island, where it was among the most abundant understory shrubs of the woodlands around our home. It grew everywhere but I first took note of it when a large Douglas-fir (a species named for David Douglas, mentioned above) in my grandparent’s suburban back yard was cut down. The giant stump soon sprouted with salal and produced abundant berries, which my siblings and I ate in the summer. They are mildly sweet.
Because salal is salt-tolerant, they grow well along Vancouver Island’s rugged coastlines. Dense stands of salal can be difficult to move through and I recall shoving my way through it while hiking the Juan de Fuca, West Coast, and Cape Scott trails of western Vancouver Island. On one occasion, near the logging town of Port Alberni in July 2009, I was followed by a wolf while attempting to navigate through thick salal cover. I could barely see the wolf, which only raised its head above the salal occasionally, to mark my location. I, of course, was glaringly conspicuous, ambling over the shrubbery. I have been worried about bumping into bears in thick stands, when we might both be munching on the berries.