Salal is a familiar companion of the forest underbrush from Alaska to Santa Barbara. It is unadorned for most of the year, a simple shrub with largish (~4 inch) leathery leaves that dance up alternate sides of a slightly zig-zagged stem. In between the large veins, the leaves are traced with an intricate lacey pattern somewhat like the crease on the palm of a hand.
Small bell-shaped flowers of pinkish white appear at the tips of the stems in the early summer, and by now the dark purple fruit has ripened. Each berry is lightly hairy, and they are fairly sparse on the plant. Though edible, I have found them to be bland the few times I’ve tasted them. The leaves can be made into “a pleasant tea“, and poultices made of the leaves were traditionally applied to cuts, burns and sores. The fruit or leaves were also used to make dyes (of purple or yellow).
In ditches and along river banks, the berries are beginning to ripen. Great green mounds of shrubs – all leaves and thorny branches – are speckled with dark purple fruit. Younger berries are still green or red, and most bushes still have flowers on them as well.
This is the Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus), one of the most common berries around. It is also one of the only non-native invasive berries in the area. Though it’s delicious in pies, smoothies and endless other treats, this shrub can be a nasty problem for native habitats: I’ve seen it smother entire fields, leaving no space for native plants and the animals that depend on them. Usually you’ll see it in disturbed places and on poor soils. Despite the name, the bush originally came from western Europe and there is “no evidence” that it came from the Himalayas.
One nifty thing about this “fruit” is that it’s actually a bunch of small fruits – each little nub on the berry is called a “drupelet” in botany-speak.
One of my favorite Fourth of July memories is eating my great-aunt Martha’s huckleberry pie when I was a kid. We’d gather at the family campground by a little river, and eat California delicacies like abalone, venison, and this wonderful pie. Huckleberries are a wild-tasting fruit, tart but sweet. They taste of pine forest and long days with picking buckets. The little fruits hold their texture even when cooked, they pop in your mouth with a satisfying burst: perfect when blended with sugar and a flaky crust.
Huckleberries (Vaccinium ovatum) grow all along the west coast – from Canada to Alaska – but not many people cook with them often since they are so small that picking enough for a pie takes a long time. Look for them in forests and clearings, often on slopes. The shrubs are attractive, with dense shiny foliage of small oval leaves. White lantern-shaped flowers give rise to small, round, dark purple fruit that looks like a small blueberry.