|Distribution in the United States|
Gaultheria shallon is 1.3 to 10 ft (0.40 to 3.05 m) tall, sprawling to erect. It is loosely to densely branched and often forms dense, nearly impenetrable thickets.
Its evergreen leaves are dense, leathery, and tough, of egg-headed shape. They are shiny and dark green on the upper surface, and rough and lighter green on the lower. Each finely and sharply serrate leaf is 5 to 10 cm (2.0 to 3.9 in) long. Each leaf generally lives for 2 to 4 years before it is replaced.
The inflorescence of flowers consists of a bracteate raceme, one-sided, with five to 15 flowers at the ends of branches. Each flower is composed of a deeply five-parted, glandular-haired calyx and an urn-shaped pink to white, glandular to hairy, five-lobed corolla, 7 to 10 mm (0.28 to 0.39 in) long.
The fruit is reddish to blue, rough-surfaced, covered in tiny hairs, nearly spherical and 6 to 10 mm (0.24 to 0.39 in) in diameter. The fruits are "pseudoberries", or capsules made up of a fleshy outer calyx, and each fruit contains an average of 126 brown, reticulate seeds approximately .004 inches (0.10 mm) in length.
It is found in western Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon and along much of the California coast. It grows as far north as Baranof Island, Alaska. Western poison oak is a common associate in the California Coast Ranges.
Lewis and Clark reported the local Chinook jargon name of the omnipresent evergreen shrub to be shallon, shelwel, or shellwell, but when Scottish naturalist David Douglas arrived at Fort George in April 1825 he noted that it was not called shallon but rather salal or sallal. 
Gaultheria shallon grows in warm, moist to dry, montane to lowland coastal conifer forests as well as forested peatland and swamps throughout the Pacific Northwest. It is a common coniferous forest understory species and may dominate large areas with its spreading rhizomes. Individual plants may live for hundreds of years, spreading from their rhizomes. The plant is sensitive to frost.
It is tolerant of salt spray and grows well on stabilized dunes, exposed slopes, and bluffs near the ocean, as well as in coastal brushfields and coastal shore pine and Sitka spruce forests. Salal tolerates moderate shade and does well in sun.
Conifer regeneration is typically better on sites dominated by salal than on sites dominated by the western swordfern or vine maple, although it still competes with conifer seedlings for water, nutrients, and space. There are mixed reports on its impact on Douglas-fir regrowth; on some sites it may hinder it, but on others it may add nutrients to the soil and actually increase conifer regeneration.
Use by Animals
The leaves are browsed by deer and elk, and it is an important winter food for those species. Browse is heaviest when other low-growing species become covered in snow; in Western Washington salal leaves composed 30.4% of deer diet by volume in January, compared to only 0.5% in June. The leaves have relatively low nutritional value, and deer which feed exclusively on them have shown signs of malnutrition, cementing their status as a winter and emergency food for ungulates. Beavers and the white-footed vole are known to feed on salal leaves, as are domestic goats and sheep in some areas.
The band-tailed pigeon, wrentit, various species of grouse, and numerous songbirds consume the fruit, as do mammals such as the red squirrel, black bear, black-tailed deer, Townsend's chipmunk, and the Douglas squirrel.
Salal flowers are pollinated by hummingbirds, bees, and flies, and are browsed by deer.
It provides important cover and hiding places for a variety of species, from large ungulates to small birds and mammals.
Salal is adapted to a fire regime of infrequent fires, from intervals of 50 to 500+ years. Although aboveground portions of the plant may be consumed, rhizomes in the soil will survive and resprout after light to moderate fires. Severe fires on dry, shallow soil will penetrate into the roots and kill the plant.
The dark blue berries and young leaves of G. shallon are both edible and are efficient appetite suppressants, both with a unique flavor. The berries were a significant food resource for some Native American tribes, who ate them fresh and dried them into cakes. They were also used as a sweetener, and the Haida used them to thicken salmon eggs. The leaves of the plant were also sometimes used to flavor fish soup.
More recently, G. shallon berries are used locally in jams, preserves, and pies. They are often combined with Oregon-grape because the tartness of the latter is partially masked by the mild sweetness of G. shallon.
In the Pacific Northwest, the harvesting of G. shallon is the heart of a large industry which supplies cut evergreens worldwide for use in floral arrangements. It is used in native plant gardens. It is sold as "Lemon Leaf".
Gaultheria shallon has been used for its medicinal properties by local natives for generations. The medicinal uses of this plant are not widely known or used. However, the leaves have an astringent effect, making it an effective anti-inflammatory and anti-cramping herb. Leaves prepared in a tea or tincture are thought to decrease internal inflammation such as bladder inflammation, stomach or duodenal ulcers, heartburn, indigestion, sinus inflammation, diarrhea, moderate fever, inflamed / irritated throat, and menstrual cramps. A poultice of the leaf can be used externally to ease discomfort from insect bites and stings.
Gaultheria shallon was introduced to Britain in 1828 by David Douglas, who intended the plant to be used as an ornamental.It is believed to have been planted as cover for pheasants on shooting estates.
It readily colonizes heathland and acidic woodland habitats in southern England, often forming very tall and dense evergreen stands which smother other vegetation. Although heathland managers widely regard it as a problem weed on unmanaged heathland, it is readily browsed by cattle (especially in winter), so where traditional grazing management has been restored, the dense stands become broken up and the plant becomes a more scattered component of the heathland vegetation.
As an invasive species, Salal is resistant to many herbicides due to its waxy foliage, although Garlon and Silvex can be effective when properly applied. Attempts at mechanical removal may break up rhizomes and stimulate new growth, thus increasing salal cover.
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- Wilkie, Thomas. 1890. Report upon the Rearing of underwood for game coverts in high forest. Transactions of Royal Scottish Arboriculture Society 12:371-374.
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