Lori Snyder exits a local coffee shop and crosses the street towards a walking path in Vancouver’s Olympic Village, surrounded by glass high-rise condos and the noises of on-going construction, perhaps not the spot one would envision when on the hunt for wild berries.
But here, next to a playground, she stops to point out a small deep bluish-purple berry.
“This is salal,” says Ms. Snyder, as if she is formally introducing the plant. “Isn’t she beautiful?” And it is, with its thick, leathery leaves and rich deep purple fruit, but the salal berry may also save people from cancer and slow the effects of aging.
A recent study out of the University of Victoria reveals the salal berry as an antioxidant powerhouse – which researchers and dieticians have found to have cancer-fighting and heart-healthy properties – with five times the level of tannins and 1.5 times the level of anthocyanin than blueberries.
The health benefits of wild foods are still being discovered by modern health research, but the value of these foods has always been a part of Indigenous traditional knowledge.
For the past six years, Ms. Snyder, an urban herbalist whose ancestry is a blend of the Métis, has worked with all ages to educate them about local wild foods and medicines.
What she discovered in her research, she says, is that there was very little cancer within the First Nations communities, as berries were an important food source in their diet all around Turtle Island, or North America.
While Ms. Snyder has been busy educating the public about salal and other wild foods through the senses, Peter Constabel, a biologist at the University of Victoria and co-author of the recent salal-berry study, has been researching the berry’s properties at the molecular level. His research team measured more than 50 phytochemical compounds and antioxidant capacity over the course of salal fruit development.
As a plant biologist, Dr. Constabel had heard of salal berries, but it was a bottle of dessert wine containing the berry that really caught his attention.
“I’d heard a lot about them as they’re very common here, but I didn’t realize how good they were to eat,” he explains. “It’s such an important food source and really underappreciated because most people don’t know you can eat them.”
This is something Ms. Snyder hears a lot. But as she passes over a spoon of her homemade salal berry jam, it’s clear that she wants people to experience the unique, earthy taste of these berries and “form a relationship” with them. Because for her, healthy food is more than its cellular make-up. It’s about the soil, the health of the plant, its environment and what Ms. Snyder refers to as the five Rs: respect, relationship, responsibility, reverence and reciprocity.
“Health is not just one thing, it’s not just our food, it’s that relationship to this,” as she puts one hand on the low-lying plant and the other on her chest. “For me, why the Indigenous knowledge is so important is because they knew how to be in a balanced place.”
The salal is a Pacific Northwest coastal species, while Shannon McDonald is Métis/Anishinaabe with deep roots in the Red River Valley of Manitoba, so she “wouldn’t know a salal berry if I fell over it.” But as the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the First Nations Health Authority she knows the importance of holistic teachings of healthy food and the sense of community it can bring, which she argues deepens the health benefits pointed out by science.