A more collaborative approach to Salal

IMGP3499SalalFlowersWBeeYears ago, a new neighbor moved in next door. Her home was pleasantly set among Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) trees. She confessed (though not very contritely) to a Sin-Against-Creation: she had taken a sample of the rangy, woody evergreen plant that grew at the base of the tall trees to a local nursery and demanded: “What is this? And how do I get rid of it?” With a look of horror, the nursery employee had informed her that the plant was our precious native Salal (Gaultheria shallon).

A Swedish relative came to visit my cousin’s family, who lived on 5 mostly-wooded acres east of Seattle. The Swede noted that, in many ways, the Puget Sound area reminded him of the Swedish landscape, green and verdant and largely forested, except… and he waved his hands at the underbrush growing among the sturdy trunks of tall Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata), Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and Douglas Fir, and said, rather scornfully, “but what is all this, this [he couldn’t find an English word for it] stuff?”

Apparently, there is something in the human psyche that wants clear sight lines through the forest (the better to see large predators?). Or maybe it is just human nature to neaten things up, to control it, to tame it.

Here in the forests of maritime Cascadia–the Garden of Eden where we have been placed–we are blessed with brush, brush and more brush! Depending on the stage of growth a particular patch of woods is in, it will have a certain amount of “understory shrubs” (a more PC phrase than “brush”). For example, the edge of a forest or in a forest with still-small trees will be infested/thick/lush with Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), Salal, Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum), Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) and/or any of a long list of view-blocking bushes. But a stand of old growth trees is much more open, because the canopies of the trees overlap, making the forest floor very shady.

Back to my new neighbor’s Salal. Growing near the front door in dense shade, it was rather sparse, with tufts of round leaves nodding at the top of tall stems. Okay, it was homely. But instead of adopting a warlike attitude (“How do I get rid of it?”), let’s imagine that she pursued educating herself (“What is this?” was a good starting point). She learned that Salal has many benefits: shelter for birds, small mammals and amphibians, nectar for bees from its pink, heather-like flowers (Salal is in the Ericaceae/Heath family), soil-anchoring power in its spreading rhizomes and raindrop-deflecting evergreen foliage, and berries for everyone! She quelled her post-Edenfruit-gnoshing-gardener-run-amok tendencies a bit and took a more collaborative approach: How can I nudge this scraggly specimen toward lush beauty? And then she discovered that pruning the woody stems down to 3-6” (or so) every few years in early spring rejuvenates the plant so it bushes out. And pruning up some tree limbs above it let more light reach the ground, giving her entire woodland garden a new lease on life.

She learned that Salal thrives in the very dry, shady conditions directly under her large Douglas Firs. She added some Sword Fern, Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), groundcovers–Inside-out Flower (Vancouveria hexandra), Redwood Sorrel (Oxalis oregana), Twinflower (Linnaea borealis)—and the dainty blooms of Foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata), and … Hallelujah, she was back in the Garden again!

Salal grows slowly and doesn’t transplant easily, so it makes sense to buy it from a nursery (hint, hint). Its roots will be well-established and ready for a home.