Gaultheria shallon



The Basics

Taxonomy: Kingdom - Plantae (plants). Subkingdom - Tracheobionta (vascular plants). Superdivision - Spermatophyta (seed plants). Division - Magnoliophyta (flowering plants). Class - Magnoliopsida (dicotyledons). Subclass - Dilleniidae. Order - Ericales. Family - Ericaceae (heath). Genus - Gaultheria L. Species - Gaultheria shallon Pursh

Ecology: Salal grows in early seral to climax stands in Douglas-fir-western hemlock forests and in coastal western hemlock forests of the Northwest. Salal is a residual species which persists on many types of newly disturbed sites. It can rapidly colonize open areas, particularly on undisturbed soil and appears well adapted for opportunistic survival in changing canopy gaps. Once established, salal spreads aggressively and is well-suited for use as a ground cover on erosive banks, roadcuts, highway right-of-ways, and other types of reclaimed ground. Salal competes vigorously with conifer regeneration in some locations. On moist sites, this shrub commonly competes with Douglas-fir, Sitka spruce, and western hemlock, and to a lesser degree with western redcedar. In general, the nutrient-demanding Sitka spruce is most harmed by competition with sala, but salal can also significantly reduce the basal area and stocking of Douglas-fir seedlings on some sites.


Salal is an erect to spreading, clonal evergreen shrub or subshrub which grows 0.4-3 m in height. This loosely to densely branched shrub often forms dense, nearly impenetrable thickets. Twigs are reddish-brown with shredding bark. Most biomass is concentrated below ground and an extensive, but variable network of roots and rhizomes occupies the top layer of soil. Leaves are ovate to ovate-elliptic, sharply serrulate, and 5-10 cm in length. The shiny dark green, alternate leaves are thick and leathery. Small, urn-shaped flowers are borne in showy clusters on terminal and subterminal bracteate racemes. The white, pink or deep-rose tinged flowers are sticky and glandular. Fruit is a round, reddish, purplish, or bluish black [edible] "pseudoberry" or capsule which is made up of a fleshy outer calyx. Fruits are covered with tiny hairs and average 0.24 to 6-10 mm in diameter. Each fruit contains an average of 126 brown, reticulate seeds approximately 1 mm in length.


In the WFDP: Salal is susceptible to suppression-induced mortality in this energy-limited system.

Fire effects: The shade-tolerant salal appears well able to persist under a regime of relatively infrequent fires. Long fire-free intervals are common in many climax coastal coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest. Salal is described as a woody survivor of fire. Underground portions of the plant commonly survive even when aboveground vegetation is consumed by fire. Salal generally sprouts from the roots, rhizomes, or stem base after aboveground vegetation is damaged or consumed by fire.


Seed dispersal - Salal flowers are pollinated by insects such as bees and flies. Seeds are dispersed by a variety of birds and mammals. Evidence suggests that seeds consumed by bears may germinate more readily than uneaten seeds.

Seedling establishment/growth - Potential for reproduction from seed appears poor under natural conditions. Few seedlings establish despite the large numbers that germinate. Seedling establishment may be limited to favorable microsites or to periods of unusual weather conditions. Initial seedling growth is slow.

Asexual regeneration - Additional expansion of existing clones occurs through layering, sprouting of rhizomes, root suckering, and sprouting from the stem base. Salal sprouts prolifically after disturbances which damage or remove aboveground plant parts, and expands through spreading roots and rhizomes in the absence of disturbance. Layering, rooting at the stem nodes, and spread through stolons has also been reported. Stems which are forced into the organic mat typically generate adventitious roots. Salal plants are often made up of several individual aboveground shoots connected belowground by several meters of rhizomes.

Species Distribution


USDA Plants Database
USDA, NRCS. 2016. The PLANTS Database. National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA.

USFS Plant Database
Habeck, R. J. 1992. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory.

Flora of North America
Flora of North America Editorial Committee, eds. 1993+. Flora of North America North of Mexico. 19+ vols. New York and Oxford.

Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture
Burke Museum. 2016 [Online]. University of Washington.
Photo credit: Rod Gilbert 2006