British Columbia

B.C.'s salal shrubs are dying and extreme weather could be the culprit

One of B.C.'s most abundant plants is in trouble: patches of hardy salal plants are turning up brown, crispy and dying.

The dry leaves, which act as fuel, are a concern ahead of wildfire season

A cold, dry winter is suspected to be the reason salal, the waxy-leaved shrub common to the Pacific Northwest, is dying. (Evan Mitsui)

One of B.C.'s most abundant plants is in trouble: patches of hardy salal plants are turning up brown, crispy and dying.

Richard Hamelin, a professor of forest pathology at UBC's Faculty of Forestry, knew something was seriously wrong when he started getting reports — from people in the Sea to Sky corridor, Vancouver Island, the Fraser Valley, and beyond — about the dying salal.

"We thought right away that something really unusual is happening when we were getting calls from a lot of different areas of the province," Hamelin said.

Salal is an evergreen plant. So seeing brown leaves at any time of year is unusual. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The evergreen, shrub-like plant is widespread across the province's forests and is known for its hardiness. That's partly why the sight of the dried, brown leaves was so noticeable and surprising, Hamelin said.

"People have been taking pictures, they've been posting them on social media," he told CBC's The Early Edition.

"It's something that's really unusual."

Salal is ubiquitous in B.C.'s forests. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Searching for an explanation

Hamelin asked people to send in samples of the plants to figure out why they are dying off.

"The first thing you always think of when you see mortality like this in trees or bushes or plants is that there's a disease or a pest killing the plant," he said.

"So far, we haven't found any pathogens."

The new hypothesis? Climate change.

"The leading cause that we're thinking of is the unusual weather events and that would be sort of a sneak preview of what climate change might do to our forests and our ecosystems," Hamelin said.

He pointed in particular to the unusually dry summer followed by a polar vortex in the winter as factors — a "one-two punch" for the salal. he said.

"If it's climate-related, usually these extreme weather events, once the weather go back to normal, there's a recovery. That's the hope," he said. 

Hamelin's first hunch was that pests or pathogens were behind the dying plants but so far, his research hasn't found any. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

In the meantime, a dry covering of dead plants on the ground does not bode well for forest fire season.

"Any kind of fuel — any kind of dried, dead plant or tree material in the forests — would increase the risk of forest fire," Hamelin said.

"So, that's something that we should really be concerned about going forward."

With files from The Early Edition

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