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Salal is a perennial, creeping or erect, evergreen shrub. Its genus name comes from a Canadian botanist and physician, Dr. Hugues Jean Gaulthier. Salal is in the heather (Ericaceae) family. Native to western North America, from Alaska to California, it is a common (coniferous) forest understory shrub. Salal is predominantly found at lower elevations due to its frost sensitivity. The leaves live 2 to 4 years and will grow at different times, so the shrub always has leaves. Stems and twigs live for 16 years or more. Most of the plant’s biomass is underground, and in many cases, the roots live for hundreds of years. It spreads by sprouting from underground stems. They tend to grow in an almost impenetrable thicket.
Salal bark is rarely seen because of its thicket-forming nature. It bark is reddish brown to grayish brown and longitudinally scaly. Mature bark generally peels.
Twigs are green to red and has short hairs. The twigs change angles between each node giving it a zig zag appearance. Older twigs are smooth and grayish brown. Twigs can live over 15 years, but bear leaves only the first few years.
Salal is a slow growing shrub, but can grow to over 2 meters (6') tall in shady conditions. In sunny locations, it usually grows half as tall.
Leaves are thick, dark green on top, and have a waxy feel to them. They are oval-shaped, measuring about 5 to 10cm (2 to 4") long and about to 3 to 7 cm (1 to 3") wide. They grow alternate.
Flowers look like little white to pink bells (or urn shaped), are slightly sticky and they feel slightly hairy. Each flower is composed of a deeply five-parted, glandular-haired calyx, and a 5-lobed corolla that meaures 7 to 10 mm (0.27 to 0.39") long. Flowers bloom from May to July.
Berries are a dull blue-black color when fully mature and are slightly hairy. They have a five-pointed star shape on the underside. Each fruit is about 1 cm rounded, and it ripens in summer.
Salals grow in the understory of (mainly) coniferous forests, bogs, wet forests, and on rocky bluffs. Although they can be found somewhat inland, salals are usually found along the west coast of North America.
Fruit is edible and has a slight sweetness to it. They were extensively used by many of the indigenous people of the Pacific northwest. In addition to eating the berries fresh, the indiginous people dried salals into cakes, to thicken salmon eggs and dipped in oolichan grease. The fruit can also be made into preserves, pies, juices, or they can be dried and used like raisins.
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