Salal is found wild in western North America’s coastal areas and the berries are an important food source for the First Nations in British Colombia. Today, salal also serves as a beautiful ornamental you can find growing in gardens across the world.
Salal berries have a powerful antioxidant effect, which makes them popular not only as a sweet treat but as a tasty superfood, too. If you’re interested in making herbal medicine at home, this is a great plant to use.
It’s a multi-purpose wonder. You can harvest the berries for cooking and use the rest of the plant to make a tea or salve, all while it adds a decorative element to your garden.
So, how do you grow this magnificent shrub at home?
A Bit About Salal
When you’re strolling in nature, there’s no shortage of unique plants and shrubs, so how can you spot salal (Gaultheria shallon)?
These shrubs can grow up to four feet tall and five feet wide. Salal belongs to the Ericaceae family and can be grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 6-8.
This perennial shrub has waxy, leathery, egg-shaped, dark green leaves. In spring, you’ll see tiny pink and white flowers on this plant.
Not long after the flowering season, black and purple berries start to appear. It’s not uncommon to see hikers and wildlife such as deer snacking on these berries as they taste sweet and delicious.
Of course, you don’t have to go hunting in the wild to make salal a part of your life. You can purchase plants and seeds at specialty nurseries across the country. Not only do they make a pretty addition to the garden, but they grow delicious berries, as well.
Once harvested, salal berries are used to make jams, spreads, and other sweet treats. But, they can also feed the local wildlife and act as ornamental pieces on your homestead.
Herbalists Michael Moore notes that the salal leaves were used in Native American folk medicine to cure wounds and sores. The antioxidant properties in the leaves are excellent for making soothing tea or ointment for cuts.
Salal can be invasive in some areas, however, so you need to use caution when planting it. In fact, there is even a program dedicated to figuring out how salal impacts tree growth called the Salal Cedar Hemlock Integrated Research Program.
Just be sure to grow it in the right place and keep it under control, if necessary.
Growing Salal Shrubs at Home
Salal shrubs are easy to grow and don’t require too much extra work once established. However, as with all plants, they need certain conditions to thrive and be healthy.
Salal shrubs need well-draining, slightly acidic soil. The location should be partially shaded, with a soil pH between 5.5-7.0 for optimal growth.
Even though it’s possible to grow salal in full sun and poor soil, the shrub will only grow 1-2 feet tall, and the berries will be few. Find the right location before you consider growing this salal.
This plant grows via rhizomes. In some areas, this shrub will quickly take over the garden if you’re not careful. It’s even considered invasive in the UK.
When planting salal shrubs, you need to think carefully about their location. They do not like being transplanted, so you should ensure that the location has everything it needs to thrive before placing the seeds in the ground.
Some good locations for planting salal seeds are near woodland margins or streams. However, if there’s partial shade, anywhere will be fine.
You should always clear the surrounding area of weeds when planting a new shrub to prevent pests and diseases from attacking your new plant. You should also remove any sticks, stones, and other debris around the planting site.
If the soil needs to be more acidic, add sulfur to alter the pH. Work in lots of well-rotted compost or manure if your soil is sandy, heavy, or poorly draining.
Soak the seeds for 24 hours in water before planting them in the ground. Plant salal seeds 1/4-1/2 inch deep into the soil. You can start them in pots or directly in the ground.
After the seeds have been planted, soak the soil with water. You want it moist but not soggy. Keep the soil moist as the plants grow.
If you started the seeds in pots, place them in the ground as soon as they’ve grown three or four leaves. You don’t want to leave them in the pot for too long as they don’t transplant well.
You can purchase seedlings or divide a plant from a friend or neighbor. Before planting purchased seedlings in the ground, check if the roots have become root bound. If they have, gently loosen the roots before placing the plant in the ground.
Remember to space the seedlings 3-4 feet apart if you plan to grow multiple shrubs.
Keep the plants well-watered as they become established.
Caring for Your Salal Plant
You only need to water this plant if the rainfall is less than one inch per week. Since most of us live in areas that at least occasionally experience less than this amount, you’ll need to provide water. You can use a rain gauge or moisture meter to determine when it’s time.
Pruning can be done every two years in early spring if you want to maintain a certain height. Feel free to divide the plants every few years to limit their spread and keep an eye out for runners.
You can propagate this plant by cuttings, seed, or division if you want to extend your salal collection in your garden.
The best mulch for salal shrubs is pine needles or wood chips. You should cover the soil with three inches of your preferred mulch to help suppress weeds and retain moisture.
Salal Pests and Diseases
Apart from watering and pruning, you should also be extra vigilant for pests and diseases on this plant. Salal is like any other plant; it can encounter problems.
Sudden Oak Death
Sudden Oak Death (caused by the fungus Phytophthora ramorum) is as deadly as it sounds. Despite the name, this fungal disease is found on salal shrubs as well as oaks.
You can spot this disease by the leaf spots and discoloration it creates. If you notice these signs, you should take the correct steps to cure your plant before it’s too late.
To deal with this disease, remove the infected parts. You can apply systemic fungicide to slow the progression, but there is no cure.
Vine weevils enjoy eating away at shrubs like salal, so you must know what to watch out for when these pests attack. You might have weevils if you see black and yellow-winged insects that look like a beetle on your shrub.
It’s not the beetles that do the damage, however. It’s the larvae.
Most of the time, the weevils are found at the base of the plant, so it’s essential to check when you’re watering or assessing your plants for infection. If you spot them early, you can remove them by hand.
Or, you can apply biological control like beneficial nematodes to control this pest. This type of biological control is entirely safe for use on ornamentals and edible plants like salal.
Harvesting Your Sweet Salal Berries
In late summer, your berries should be ready to harvest. At this point, they will be ripe and fully matured, so all you need to do is pick them off the shrub. Simply cut the stem with garden scissors or use your fingers to harvest the berries.
You should be careful not to wear anything white, as the berry juice will likely stain you when you snip the berries off the plant.
Like other berries, you can throw salal berries into your morning smoothie or mix them into a pie for a lovely autumnal treat. Here is an excellent recipe for salal berry jam to get you inspired in the kitchen:
- 10 cups of salal berries
- 4 tablespoons of lemon juice
- 1/4 cup of water
- Pinch of lemon zest
- 1/2 cup of sugar
- 2 tablespoons of rosemary
Gently simmer the berries, water, and lemon juice in a pot. Stir frequently to prevent scorching. The berries should break down in 15-20 minutes and start to look like puree. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer until it reaches the consistency you prefer.
Let it cool for 10 minutes and prepare the jars. If you’re new to canning, check out our guide. Make sure the jars are sealed and place them somewhere cool overnight.
The following day you can enjoy your fresh jam for breakfast!