Nancy Turner, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, UVic Environmental Studies, wrote:
Over the past few years, I have noticed that salal (Gaultheria shallon) plants in various parts of the coast have been dying back. However, I have never seen it as bad as it is this spring (2019). Not only are the salal branches and individual plants turning brown and dying, very suddenly, but in some cases, entire patches of salal are perishing. A number of friends who have worked along the BC Coast have sent observations and photographs of this salal die-off, and I have seen it myself in several places. Even some of the salal growing in the gardens at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver have died, despite the obvious care the plants are receiving. I am aware of various theories about why the salal is dying. It could be a fungus disease epidemic; certainly salal is susceptible to some types of fungus. I suspect that climate change – warmer and drier winters without much snow, and hot, dry summers – has had a strong impact on the salal.
Whatever the cause, the die-off is alarming because of the ecological and cultural importance of this plant. It is an iconic species of our coastal temperate rainforest, with its dense branches and shiny, somewhat leather evergreen foliage that make it a major understory species in both Coastal Western Hemlock and Coastal Douglas-fir forest zones. Its urn-shaped flowers, lined up along one side of the stalk, provide nectar and pollen for a whole range of bees and other insects. Its dark purple, sweet, juicy berries are food for myriad birds and other wildlife.
For coastal First Nations, salal is a cultural keystone species, named in every language, all along the coast. Its leaves have been used medicinally, and its branches used for protecting and flavouring food in cooking pits. Its juicy, flavourful berries were, and still are, harvested in immense quantities as a food. They were and are eaten fresh right from the bushes, and can be picked in quantity into baskets or pails. Formerly, they were boiled to a jam-like consistency and spread out on waxy-surfaced skunk-cabbage leaves to dry. After the upper surface of the berries had dried, the cakes were turned over onto other skunk-cabbage leaves to complete their drying, usually over the course of a day. Then, this traditional “fruit leather” was stored away in cedarwood boxes or other containers for winter. More recently, people jar the berries, or make them into jams, jellies and other preserves, alone, or mixed with other berries. Salal berries are rich in antioxidant flavonoids, and are therefore very healthy as a food, as well as being good-tasting.