Students of Ethnobotany: Bouquet of Green

800px-Salal_(Gaultheria_shallon)_Leaf_and_FlowersThis ornamental edition of Students of Ethnobotany comes from the impressive Thomas M.

Odds are if you’ve lived on the west (aka wet) coast and ever done some adventuring in the fantastic plethora of nature that thrives here you will have come across some salal.

The formal scientific name for salal is Gaultheria shallon, and it grows in dry, understory conditions. But “dry” can be misleading. I should mention that a “dry” site can still receive over 1400 mm of rain per year; “dry” typically describes soil drainage. Salal is plentiful here on the west coast. It’s a woody evergreen shrub, with tough spindly stems and large, waxy leaves, and can reach an impressive size.

Thumbing through some old hiking photos I found photo of a massive salal plant overgrowing a bridge on the West Coast Trail. Given that the bridge is already off the ground and the shrub is well above head height, this demonstrates that in the right conditions these guys can grow. Photo credit Thomas M.

Thumbing through some old hiking photos I found photo of a massive salal plant overgrowing a bridge on the West Coast Trail. Given that the bridge is already off the ground and the shrub is well above head height, this demonstrates that in the right conditions these guys can grow. Photo credit Thomas M.

So why am I so impressed with this ubiquitous shrub? The First Nations had many uses for them. But that isn’t too surprising. The coastal First Nations were amazing at using whatever was around them in many, many ways. Western red-cedar is the classic example: it was used for boats, clothing, cordage, totem poles, fish traps, long houses, insect repellant, etc. etc. Salal didn’t have as many uses, but was still important. The berries were a useful food source; they were eaten on their own, used as a sweetener, and dried for eating through the winter.

800px-Gaultheria_shallon_31974But what really blows my mind is the current commercial use of salal: floral arrangements. Turns out those shiny, waxy evergreen leaves last a long time and add some desired greenness and beautify a bouquet. One recent study estimated that salal exports from southern Vancouver Island alone generated $6-10 million dollars in export revenue, and professional salal gatherers can earn a competitive living wage. Now, in the big economic picture that’s not a lot of money, but considering I walk past salal almost every day it makes me think that I should start carrying pruning shears with me and start paying off my student debt while walking to class.

Reference

Hobby, T., Dow, K., & Mackenzie, S. (2010). Commercial development of salal on southern Vancouver Island. BC Journal of Ecosystems and Management, 11, 62-71.

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