Salal (Gaultheria shallon)

Salal is an evergreen, understory shrub found in coastal forests from British Columbia to southern California. It is identified by its shiny, dark green leaves and its purple-to-black, berry-like fruits. Lewis and Clark wrote about salal in their journals, a plant they first encountered on the Oregon Coast near Astoria in 1806. Long before these explorers discovered salal, however, Native Americans used this plant in a variety of ways, including as a medicine, food, dye and utensil. Wildlife including bears, deer, elk and beavers also enjoy salal.

Salal continues to be a good food source for humans today. The berries are loaded with vitamins and antioxidants that prevent degeneration. Berries can be eaten fresh, added to smoothies, pies, jam and fruit leather. They are ripe during late summer – usually August and September. Keep an eye out for this plant next time you explore Oregon’s forests.

Gorse (Ulex)

If you spend any length of time on the South Coast you’ll likely hear about gorse. This shrub that originated in the United Kingdom is considered invasive in this region and has become infamous among locals.

Gorse arrived on the South Coast in the late 1800s when Irishman Lord George Bennett founded the town of Bandon and planted gorse, a shrub that reminded him of his homeland, in his garden. It is not hard to imagine why locals dislike gorse today. This plant is hardy, grows quickly, out-competes and displaces native plants, and is covered in inch-long spines that make thickets virtually impassible. It is not these qualities that have earned gorse its negative reputation, however. Gorse also secretes an oil that burns like diesel fuel making it highly flammable. Within decades of Lord Bennett bringing this plant to the South Coast it actually threatened the very existence of the town he founded. In 1936 a gorse fire nearly destroyed Bandon!

Today there are substantial efforts to control the spread of gorse, including a Gorse Action Group that consists of representatives from federal, state and county agencies and nonprofit organizations who are working together to assess the extent of gorse and create a strategic plan for control on the southern Oregon coast. In February the City of Bandon hosts the Gorse Blossom Festival to educate the public about this invasive species.  

During your next trip to the South Coast be take care to avoid gorse’s sharp spines and be mindful next time you think about transporting your favorite plants to new locations. Lord Bennett might feel differently about gorse if he understood the consequences of bringing gorse to Oregon so many years ago.

Northern Elephant Seal (Mirounga angustirostris)

Dozens of different species of marine mammals can be found off Oregon’s Coast. Perhaps one of the most distinctive to make its way on shore is the Northern Elephant Seal, the largest pinniped carnivore that occurs along the North Pacific Coast. This animal gets its name from its size as well as the trunk-like “nose” – known as a proboscis – that is found on males and can be inflated to enhance vocalizations during mating season. Adult female elephant seals can weigh up to 1,700 pounds, and adult males can weigh up to 5,000 pounds! Unlike other mammals, including humans, that shed hair year-round, elephant seals experience this one time a year in a process called molting when they come ashore and shed the first layer of skin and their fur. The skin and fur come off in sheets as new skin and fur replace the old.

For a period of time elephant seals were thought to be extinct after they were killed in large numbers for their blubber. A small group survived off the coast of Mexico. Thanks to protections in Mexico and the United States, scientists believe there are around 170,000 northern elephant seals today. Elephant seals do not generally breed in Oregon, but visitors to the South Coast may be fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of one at Cape Arago State Park (near Coos Bay), the only location where elephant seals haul out year round in Oregon.