Common old salal is florists’ best friend

  • By Sharon Wootton / Herald Columnist
  • Friday, October 6, 2006 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Salal was never a candidate to become a symbol on the new Washington state quarter, but the ubiquitous evergreen bush is a familiar sight on our west side. In some places it’s an entire shiny green understory; in other areas the leaves are blighted-looking.

In all cases, new twigs zig and zag, changing angles at each node so that a branch resembles the path of a runner cutting back and forth to avoid tacklers in the backfield.

Its very flexible branches are strong and can handle wet snows, bending with the weight and then springing back after the snow melts. Dense thickets are used for cover for sleeping or resting deer and elk.

Salal might be hugging the ground below knee height, but it’s often found at 5 feet and sometimes stretching above our heads.

“We find salal in the best condition mostly at mid-elevations, 1,000 to 2,000 feet in well-drained soil; but not so much under a closed forest canopy,” said Dick Carlson, forest silviculturist for Olympic National Forest.

“In thinner woods enough sunlight gets to the ground and it grows quite well. It grows best in partial shade but not in real productive soils. It likes our glacial outwash,” Carlson said.

Too much sun will stunt its growth and turn the green leaves rusty.

In some situations salal is considered a menace to regenerating conifer stands because it competes with replanted seedlings for nutrients and water.

But the floral market loves salal because the wilt-resistant, leathery 2- to 4-inch-long leaves keep their color for months in cold storage (salal, grasses, moss and huckleberry bushes are at least a $235-million-a-year wholesale market in Washington).

Pickers, mostly immigrant workers, legal and illegal, work long hours in our woods to provide a floral industry mainstay that is shipped around the world. It’s an ill-paid and sometimes dangerous job. Fights have broken out over territory.

Olympic National Forest issues 100 permits in September at $150 each. Most are for the South Fork Skykomish, Forks and Lake Quinault areas.

“The number is based on trying to preserve the harvestable salal,” Carlson said.

The salal is snipped off near the ground and the roots left undisturbed; older leaves or those with spots are not suitable floral quality and are not picked.

“We were concerned about the effects of the harvest on the land itself but we haven’t found it to be a problem. It grows back,” Carlson said, at least in Olympic National Forest.

It was botanical explorer David Douglas who first introduced this member of the heath family to Europe in 1826.

Salal’s botanical name is Gaultheria shallon. The genus name is for 18th-century French botanist and doctor Jean Francois Gaulthier; and shallon, from the Chinook name for salal, kikwu-salu.

Long before Douglas, Gaulthier and the floral industry, American Indians made good use of salal’s somewhat dry but tasty blue-black berries (birds, deer, elk and bear eat them, too).

They’re not as sweet as blackberries but are small and easy to pick (no thorns). Coastal Indians mashed them and dried them into small cakes to be eaten during the winter, dipped in whale or seal oil. The berries also yield a permanent deep-purple dye. Salal leaves can be used for tea.

Salal berries make excellent jams and jellies, and some people turn them into wine or salal berry vinegar.

So let’s appreciate this multi-faceted bush, overlooked because it’s so commonplace.

Bike money: B.I.K.E.S. Club is offering $100-$1,000 grants to other nonprofits or government agencies to support biking and bike safety in Snohomish County.

Send a one-page letter stating the amount, the project’s purpose and a brief description of the organization.

Email the request to by Wednesday. For more information, call Kristin Kinnamon, 360-658-2462.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or

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