From forest to florist: All about salal | Nature Notes

Katherine Darrow
Posted 12/2/20

On a brisk November morning, a small crowd gathered outside the Quilcene Ranger Station for their chance in a seasonal lottery. 

Fifty people would be chosen to purchase a coveted 60-day …

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From forest to florist: All about salal | Nature Notes

Juana and Hugo with the day’s harvest of salal.
Juana and Hugo with the day’s harvest of salal.
Kathy Darrow photo for The Leader

On a brisk November morning, a small crowd gathered outside the Quilcene Ranger Station for their chance in a seasonal lottery. 

Fifty people would be chosen to purchase a coveted 60-day permit to harvest salal, an evergreen shrub native only to the Pacific Northwest. Bundles of salal leaves are sold by the truckload to make wreaths, garlands and flower arrangements, bringing cheer from our local national forests to florists across the country and throughout Europe. 

Most professional salal harvesters in our region today are Latinx, so the lottery was conducted in Spanish. 

A local Forest Service employee picked numbered discs from a bag, and the winners were called out one by one. For Juana Jaime, cincuenta y cuatro (54) was her lucky number that day. 

I asked Juana if I could join her next time she went out to harvest. The following week, my husband Tom and I joined Juana and her husband Hugo to learn the art and craft of salal picking. 

We parked at a turnout near Mount Walker and walked up a steep narrow pathway onto a forested hillside that is part of the harvest area designated on their permits. Hugo has been harvesting salal, known as brocha in Spanish, for 20 years, having learned from his uncle when he was just 16. 

“I like this work a lot,” says Hugo, “because I like being in the mountains and I can be my own boss.”  

He and Juana are able to supplement their income by harvesting salal during eight months of the year as contractors for one of the numerous wholesale floral greens warehouses in Belfair.

On a good day, an experienced harvester can easily meet the U.S. Forest Service daily quota of 200 “hands” (one ¾-pound bunch, about 25 stems) in a few hours. 

Each of us wore a few dozen thick rubber bands on our wrists, which are used to secure each bunch. Hugo and Juana waste no time getting to work, and before I’ve figured out how to pick and wrap one bunch, Hugo has harvested about a dozen. 

As he works his way through the forest, he drops each bunch to make a trail that he can backtrack, picking them up to create a larger bundle of
25 hands. 

After gathering them all into a pile, he pulls out a wad of orange twine from his pocket and deftly arranges and wraps the bunches together into 20-pound bales that he can sling over his shoulders. After an hour, Tom and I contribute about 12 hands to their 63, making three full bales.

It’s not easy work. Besides finding perfect, unblemished sets of leaves, you have to navigate scrubby, rugged terrain full of downed logs and no clear trails. You must pay close attention to your surroundings so you don’t get lost. 

Juana and Hugo are remarkably comfortable moving through the forest and seem to recognize each tree. Indeed, they have been here many times before, and are careful to not overharvest, leaving younger shoots to grow and branch out so that there will be plenty next year. 

Over the years, they have both accumulated a valuable store of local ecological knowledge that enables them to be excellent stewards of the land that we all depend on.

Salal is abundant and easy to identify. These robust shrubs have shiny, deep green, leaves on red-tinted stems. The size and shape of the leaves has earned the plant the alternate name “lemon-leaf.”  It forms dense thickets in the mixed coniferous forest lowlands throughout the Pacific Northwest from Alaska to Northern California. 

In shady humid forests, salal can grow to more than 2 meters high. Along the edges of trails or in open sunny areas, it will form more of a ground cover. Where we were picking, the salal was waist to shoulder deep in the understory of Douglas fir, red cedar and Western hemlock forest. 

During warmer months between May and August, you can find elegant rows of white, urn-shaped flowers dangling below the leaves. The Forest Service reserves summer months to let the plants put on new growth, flower and set fruit, so no harvests are permitted during that time. 

From August through October you can find deep blue succulent berries where each flower once was, a bounty that supports many species of wildlife as well as people. Native Americans throughout the Pacific Northwest harvest the berries and reputedly prefer to eat them fresh after being dipped in whale or seal oil. They also mashed them and made jam or cakes mixed with other berries to store for later consumption and for trade.

Nearly 20 Native American tribes live in the region that overlaps with salal, and each has a slightly different name for the plant. The S’Klallam tribe calls it t̕áqa, which sounds roughly like “taka” to an English speaker’s ears. The names salal and shallon are derived from Chinook Jargon, a language that was commonly used by explorers during the 1700s and 1800s to communicate with tribes across North America. Botanists classify the species as Gaultheria shallon, combining the Chinook name with the honorable memory of 18th century French-Canadian botanist Jean Francois Gaulthier. 

No matter what you call it, salal is one plant every citizen of our region should learn to recognize. 

Not only can you enjoy harvesting and snacking on nutritious berries, you can make a simple, long-lasting bouquet of salal stems for your home any time of year. As a bonus, you can help support our local communities and the sustainable harvest of forest greenery on our public lands when you purchase holiday decorations and bouquets that include salal and other Pacific Northwest native plants. 

For more information about non-timber forest product permits, including salal, visit this Olympic National Forest website:

(Katherine Darrow writes for
The Leader as a representative of the Olympic Peninsula Chapter of Washington Native Plant Society. Learn more at