By James Wood
The North West brings an abundance of wild berries, but none so delicious and filling as salal. Salal, part of the Ericaceae family (otherwise known as heather), is a low growing shrub with hearty egg-shaped leaves. This abundant North Western plant tends to grow mostly underneath the cover of the forest, but can also be seen along roadsides and pathways. Salal grows wild all over North West Washington, and I am lucky enough to be living right in the middle of salal heaven! The berries are usually ready for picking between August and October depending on the elevation and weather conditions.
For the indigenous peoples of the North West, salal berries were considered a staple food and were picked in mass quantities. According to Elise Krohn’s book Wild Rose and Western Red Cedar:
“They [salal berries] were traditionally mashed, dried into cakes and then stored and eaten in the winter months. The cakes were dried on cedar boards or skunk cabbage leaves. According to Erna Gunther in ‘Ethnobotany of Western Washington’, the Lower Chinook salal loaves weighed as much as 10-15 pounds! Many people preferred to rehydrate the cakes in water, then dip them into seal, whale or eulachon oil.”
Salal can range in flavor depending on the patch that it is gathered from. It has a rich but not too sweet flavor, and is quite easy to collect. In late summer to early fall, the berries practically fall off from the stem when picked, and is the best time to harvest them in quantity. They grow on shoot-like stems that protrude from the rest of the plant, which often hold around 10 berries each. This allows for easy yet abundant picking, and will allow the gatherer to return home with more berries than they would have expected!
It is quite common to come home with purple-stained fingers after a day of salal gathering. This is a friendly reminder of a day spent in the forest that will wash off with time. The indigenous people of the North West would use large wooden combs to get a large amount of salal with little effort, swiping their way through the forest floor to gather mass amounts of food. As stated before, the salal was mashed and dried into cakes for consumption during the winter months.
Here is a great recipe for salal fruit leather, again from Wild Rose and Western Red Cedar:
Salal Fruit Leather
Honey (if desired)
Gather berries in late summer to early fall when they are sweet and tasty. Clean and rinse if necessary. Place berries in a blender and blend until smooth. Add honey to sweeten and a little squeeze of fresh lemon juice to bring out the flavor.
Fit wax paper over a cookie sheet with sides. Pour blended berries onto the sheet and use a spatula to smooth them out to an even consistency of about a quarter inch. The berries can be dried traditionally in the sun or in the oven. If drying in the sun, it will take 2-4 days to completely dry, flipping when the top has dried. Bring the tray in at night to avoid excess moisture.
A dehydrator will also work wonders for pulling out all the moisture from the berry cake, but make sure to flip halfway through!