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Glorious Sweet Salal

Salal berries and leaves

Yesterday I spent a day in a park east of Seattle, in the shadow of Doug Fir. The air was sweet with fermenting blackberry. Tufts of goldenrod lined the path. Purple berries; Blackberry, Oregon Grape, Salal.

The recent rain had filled the mature salal berries; today they are bulging with juice and loaded with sugar. Waking a leisurely pace, I pulled salal berries off the bushes. Some went into my basket. Others I popped right into my mouth.

I met a few people on the path. None of them had ever tried salal. Was it poisonous? Was I making purple dye? Soon they were on their way with smiles on their faces, picking rain washed salal and popping it into their mouths just like me! Tasty!

Read on to learn how to harvest, process, and store salal. It's easy! Then I will show you the variety of of really simple ways that salal berries appear in my diet. Just a few minutes on this post will introduce you to an abundant natural berry that you can store and enjoy year round.

Salal is very high in the antioxidant pigment anthocyanin. Anthocyanin appears blue, purple, red or black depending on pH. When you see a berry or flower that is in that range of color, you can infer anthocyanin concentration from the darkness and depth of the color. Salal berry has a rich, thick, deep purple hue, implying high antioxidant concentration. Salal is one of the most concentrated sources of nutritional antioxidants you can find!

Collecting Salal:

Salal grows everywhere around Puget Sound. It has a lengthy ripening season. Variable stages of ripeness are present on the same plant and in the same area. Rich patches of juicy sweet berries appear just a few minutes away from overripe berries that are shriveled and taste like cardboard. Taste as you go! You’ll quickly get good at spotting the best plants. First, safety. Don’t ever put a plant in your mouth if you don’t know what it is. This discussion does not teach you how to identify salal, you have to take care of that. But this is what it looks like:

salal berries and leaves

Multiple berries grow on a small pink stalk that is only loosely attached to the plant. Pick this entire stalk, not the individual berries. Fill your basket with these. The pink stalks are useful at this stage. They keep things light and the berries don’t get crushed. Don’t pull the berries off the the stalk. Some may fall off, but don’t force it. Pulling them off easily damages the berries. We will get to that later.

salal berries in a basket

Processing Salal:

Cool your berries (optional)

Place your berries in the refrigerator for a couple of hours. You don’t have to refrigerate, but if you do, the berries stand up better to processing. I just leave them right in the basket. They are not fragile, but still, I handle them as little as possible.

Rinse your berries

Fill a large container with cold water. Put some ice into it. Pull out your cold berries in small batches. Just leave them on the stalks. Swish them around lightly. Lay them out on cookie sheets and tip up one end a bit to allow the water to run off. Leave them about an hour like this. They don’t have to be completely dry.

Salal processing for storage

Freezing I

Put your cookie sheets into the freezer for at least several hours. Then pull them out one at a time and working quickly roll and pop those frozen berries off their stalks, dropping the berries right back on the cold pan. Wiggle and shake the pan to separate the chaff. Perfect is the enemy of good. Better to keep the berries cold than try to get all of the chaff. If you spend 5 minutes doing this step that’s too long. You’ll get the idea after a few pans. Keep those berries frozen.

Freezing II

Put the pan back into the freezer for an hour or two. Then pull it out. The berries will be stuck to the pan but easy to pop free. Put berries into bags. That’s it! Now you have bags (and bags!) of frozen little magical sweet purple berries that have medicinal levels of antioxidants.

salal in a freezer bag

Eating Salal:

salal and mango on. hot cereal

Salal and mango on top of hot cereal.

What do you do with those frozen berries now? Here are my favorites:

  1. Add frozen to hot cereal

  2. Add to cold cereal

  3. Put a pile on top of ice cream

  4. Make pancakes (just put them frozen right into the batter- batter loves frozen berries!)

  5. Make any kind of pie, scone, or other pastry that you would make with blueberries or blackberries

  6. Add to a smoothie and blend in

  7. Add to a smoothie like little boba after the smoothie is made (try this you will like it!!)

  8. Grab a small handful and pop them into your mouth!

Final Thoughts:

I make sure to eat at least a few things handpicked from my surroundings every day. I can pick a year’s supply of salal in just a few pleasant hours in the woods, listening to the birds and enjoying the fall weather. Life is good.

Christopher A. Kuntz, M.D. is an author, artist, surgeon, and public speaker. His free patient education website, teaches tens of thousands of people a year worldwide how to customize their vision with cataract surgery. He has just published his first book, Scott Brown: Cartoonist (Turas Publishing, 2023). The book is about Kuntz' grandfather, one of America's greatest Depression-era cartoonists.

Dr. Kuntz spends a lot of time in the woods. He lives just east of Seattle with his lovely wife Alice. Together they enjoy nature, salsa dancing, and dinner dates with other couples.

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