If you’re serious about becoming an expert forager, I would read as many books on the topic as you can and begin to build a small library. No book offers all the answers. You’ll also find that many books contradict each other. One will say a certain plant is edible, while another will claim it’s poisonous. It can be difficult to find the truth, but the more books you have, the better chance you have of sorting through bogus claims. Another advantage of owning multiple books is that you’ll have access to multiple pictures of the same plants. This allows you to cross reference when identifying. I recommend cross referencing with at least five books before you eat a new plant or mushroom.
Below is a references list of some of the books I’ve reviewed. Check back soon as I’ll be adding many books to the list and offering an annotation for each of them. For now, I’ve rated them on their plant or mushroom content. Books with only one star are useful, but are lacking important information, factual accuracy, or relevance to our region. Books with five stars are extremely useful, very accurate, and highly applicable to our region:
*Angier, B. (2002). Basic Wilderness Survival Skills. The Lyons Press: Guilford, CT.–
Not an extremely useful plant book, but a good one to have for other reasons. Angier dedicates 37 pages to plant identification and uses. The most widely known wild edibles are covered here. There are no big secrets or particularly interesting uses. The pictures are drawings and the drawings are weaker than most dedicated plant books. The strength of the book is its section on primitive cooking tips and techniques, as well as a large section on recipes for wild game, fish and shellfish. As an added bonus, the book covers many other survival skills.
***Barker, J. (2009). A Pocket Guide to Wild Flowers of North America. Parragon: Bath, UK.—
This little book packs a serious punch of information. When I first found it on a shelf in Goodwill I thought it would be your average, run-of-the-mill flower identification book. I was pleasantly surprised to find gorgeous, magnified pictures of the plants’ flowers and leaves. I wish more books would follow Barker’s lead in showing the details close-up. However, it is the length of the average field guide, so she only has room for one picture per plant. For each plant, Barker provides a distribution map, a table of basic features, and some commentary about how to identify it, as well as some of the human uses. She does a good job of conveying a lot of useful information on one page. I actually learned about some new uses for several plants when I read this. Overall, 185 plants are covered, more than half of them occurring in our region. Quite impressive for a small field guide.
****Barron, G. (1999). Mushrooms of Northeast North America. Lone Pine Publishing: Auburn, WA.–
Well-organized and handy. As long as you don’t expect it to be the most in-depth or comprehensive book in your collection, you can appreciate it for what it is. This is a great first guide to trying to identify something new because it has more mushrooms than a guide dedicated specifically to edibles, but it’s not comprehensive enough to be cumbersome if you need to do a quick flip-through. It’s also easy to use because the pictures and text are side-by-side rather than in a completely separate part of the book like they are in many field guides—this feature of most field guides drives me crazy because I have to keep one finger in the picture section and one finger in the narrative section while trying to soak in the details. The other handy feature of this book is that it’s super easy to navigate. The book begins with a visual reference guide of mushrooms to point you to the correct section based on general characteristics of the unknown mushroom you want to look up. Then, each of the major sections start with a key, so that you can go through a step-by-step process of trying to identify the mushroom in question. The major sections are fist organized by general type of fungi (i.e. non-gilled and gilled). Then the non-gilled are sub-categorized by slime molds, sac fungi, puffballs, jelly fungi, coral fungi, tooth fungi, bracket fungi, and boletes. The gilled fungi are sub-categorized by whether their spores are dark, brown or light. Each of these sub-categories are color-coded. The colors are visible by looking at the closed book, which is extremely helpful.
**Blamey, M. (1980). Flowers of the Countryside. William Morrow & Company: New York, NY.–
A unique, but only marginally useful book for the northeastern forager. This book is written about the British countryside, so it’s not very applicable to our region. However, I bought it because the colored drawings are great and it’s helpful for identifying the occasional plant you come across that doesn’t show up in North American guides. Now that the world is so interconnected, many plants pop up in new places all the time and it’s getting harder and harder to keep track of all the flora in one place without studying plants from all over the world. It’s difficult to put this book in a box. It’s part history of taxonomy, part aristocratic gardening, part art, and part science. I enjoyed reading it, whatever it is. It’s always fun to view the plant kingdom through the unique eyes of someone as obsessed with the natural world as you and I.
*Brickell, C. (Ed.).(2011). American Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Plants & Flowers. DK Publishing: New York, NY.–
A monster. Not only is it physically big and heavy, but it is expensive to purchase and difficult to use. Maybe horticulturalists think it’s useful, but for foragers like myself, I find it only marginally useful because many of the plants I want to look up are not in it even though it is nearly 750 pages long. Navigation is a challenge because you have to know horticulturist lingo to decipher what section a given plant might be in. To look up something by common name you have to use the common name glossary, which then sends you to a scientific name text entry, which then (if you’re lucky enough) sends you to a photograph entry with more text. The text is sparse in general, given that it is an encyclopedia. The pictures are useful if you’re looking up a flower, but almost useless if you’re looking at any other part of the plant. I mostly use this book to look for very odd, random plants that I suspect to be escapees from cultivation. I wish there was a plant of this girth dedicated to wild plants.
****Brill, S. & Dean, E. (1994). Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places. Harper: New York, NY.–
Damn good for a book with only black and white hand drawn pictures. Not only are the drawings quite accurate, but Brill and Dean are hilarious. It’s one of the only foraging books that makes me laugh out loud. They are honest about the flavors (both good and bad) of wild plants. Many plants that you would find in the northeast are covered; mushrooms are not. In addition to edible aspects of plants, many medicinal uses are covered. The book also includes a section of over 50 recipes. The reason I didn’t give this book five stars is because they don’t provide many references for the claims they make. It doesn’t demonstrate the same meticulous attention to research provided by authors like Arthur Haines, Samuel Thayer, Nancy J. Turner and Patrick von Aderkas.
*****Brockman, C.F. (2001). Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. St. Martin’s Press: New York, NY.–
Worth its weight in gold. It is, hands down, my favorite tree book. It’s a bit old school in that all the pictures are drawings, but the drawings are done in a way that makes them easier to identify than the photographs in other tree books. Unlike many field guides, this field guide situates the text next to the pictures, so you can easily read about the tree while looking at it. The ranges of the trees are also nicely laid out on a little map of North America adjacent to each entry, rather than relying on undescriptive phrases such as “east of Ohio and north until Nova Scotia” like you’ll find in most books. It also covers more trees than most field guides of similar size. By the way, the book is the perfect size for throwing in a back-pack or even a fanny-pack for that matter. It also has more durable pages than the tissue-like pages you’ll find in Audubon field guides. The pictures are good for identifying a tree based on its leaf characteristics or general shape from 100 yards away, but not so good for identifying a tree based on its bark.
**Brown, W & Brown, E. (2013). Browsing Nature’s Aisles. New Society Publishers: Gabriola Island, BC.—
If you’re looking for an identification guide or a how-to guide, this is probably not the book for you. But, if you’re looking for an inspirational exploration about why to forage and how to stay motivated at it in a suburban setting, then this is the book for you. I give the Browns a lot of credit for diving into a holistic local food experiment, where they tried to eat only local wild or cultivated food. Moreover, they also have kids, which as we all know increases the challenge substantially. I enjoyed their explanation of why they started foraging and how they creatively tried to incorporate it into their daily lives. I also found their humility refreshing, since we all know that foraging in our modern world is hard. As a beginner, if you read the average foraging book, you’ll think that foraging is easy, accessible, and bountiful, and seldom are any of those things true, especially in the crowded northeast where access to clean, public, unprotected land is rare. This books offers some creative ideas and a few recipes, but doesn’t cover a large number of plants or mushrooms, nor does it offer more than a handful of black and white pictures. I recommend reading this book to feel a sense of camaraderie and inspiration.
*Churchill, J.E. (1987). Making the Wilderness Your Home: An Illustrated Guide to Living in the Woods. ICS Books: Merrillville, IN.–
Only marginally useful as a plant book, but great if you want to build a root seller or a smoke house. Like most general survival books, this book is not focused on wild edible plants. Rather, it is focused on homesteading in a wilderness setting. It does include a brief section highlighting a dozen or so plants that you would find in any run of the mill plant book. No mushrooms are covered here. Only a third of the plants covered have pictures, and the pictures are black and white. The descriptions of each species are very weak and the information on collecting and preparing is minimal. There is a short section on preserving food that includes detailed instructions and drawings outlining how to build a root cellar and also a smoke house.
***Couplan, F. (1998). The Encyclopedia of Edible Plants of North America. Keats Publishing: New Canaan, CT.–
One of the most important reference books a forager should own. This is not the kind of book that will help you identify plants, find them, or cook them. Most of the species covered do not have pictures and the drawings are primitive. The book’s strength is that in the course of 500 pages, Couplan has managed to cover most of the edible plants, not mushrooms, that are found in the northeast, and all of North America for that matter. The utility of the book comes from its coverage of specific parts of the plants used in specific parts of the world. This can be extremely helpful when you come across inconsistencies in recommended uses from one plant book to another. After reading this book, you’ll understand why foraging literature is so varied—a myriad of cultures have played a role in shaping human society’s understanding of the edible and medicinal qualities of plants and a lot of this information is not widely shared, or worse, has been lost over the years. This book serves as a helpful, albeit not indepth, compass for researching these issues.
***Crockett, L.J. (2003). The Field Guide to Weeds. Sterling Publishing Company: New York, NY.—
This adaptation of Lawrence Crockett’s book Wildly Successful Plants offers an unusual focus: weeds. I find this approach refreshing because most of the high quality plant books on the market are squarely focused on popular wild flowers or edible varieties. There are a number of plants that don’t easily fit into either of those categories, but are still good plants to know. This books explores many of those overlooked varieties. Over 90 plants are covered, most of which appear in the northeast. For each entry, Crockett offers common names, native status, range, habitat, season, some key identifying features and in some cases some information about edibility. Each entry includes an above average photograph and a helpful drawing. Having both a photograph and drawing is an excellent combination because neither medium fully captures the identifying details alone. My only critique of the photos is that they are too heavily focused on the flowers. I get that flowers are the most easily distinguished feature of most plants, but the reason most of us buy weed books is to identify plants that don’t have showy flowers or are not in bloom. There are some interesting nuggets of information in here about plant uses that you won’t find in many other books.
**Crosby, D.G. (2004). The Poisoned Weed: Plants Toxic to Skin. Oxford University Press: New York, NY.–
It takes a special kind of plant geek to read this book, let alone gasp with excitement when finding it at a library book sale. I’m that geek. That said, I do think this is a useful book for serious foragers to read as it discusses the details about most dermatotoxic plant species that are encountered in the northeast, diving into the circumstances, physiology, and chemistry involved in allergenicity, with sources to back up the claims. Crosby lays out more than you would ever want to know about poison ivy and dozens of other plants that cause reactions on human skin. Unless you are a chemist, you’ll only understand half of what he talks about. But, he does cover all the questions you might have about these types of plants. Although it is not a field guide, Crosby does offer pictures of over 15 species, as well as a couple bonus pictures of wounds. The book also includes useful tables showing the presence of various toxins within plants, as well as graphs showing how, when, and why reactions occur. Some people may find the book alarmist, unsettling, or both (like me), but I still found it enjoyable.
*Davenport, G.J. (1998). Wilderness Survival. Stackpole Books: Mechanicsburg, PA.–
Not useful as a plant or mushroom book. Like most general wilderness survival books, this is not meant to be a field guide or a serious edible plant or fungi reference, as Davenport is focused on describing general strategies for survival. In fact, Davenport only dedicates seven pages to plants and mushrooms. Most of the discussion focuses on general rules of thumb for guessing whether a wild plant is edible or not, and how to perform an edibility test. I respect Davenport and appreciate the purpose of a general survival book. However, I would caution readers to never bet their life on general rules of thumb for unidentified plants unless you’re in a true survival situation. I would also not perform an edibility test unless you’re in a true survival situation or unless you’re almost certain about the identification of a species. I hope I’ve made this clear in my safety section, where I propose a slightly different edibility test as a suggested method for eating a correctly identified plant or fungi for the first time. The risk is too great to rely on edibility tests without correctly identifying the species outside of a survival situation, especially when there are dozens of excellent books out there to help you gain certainty about the identification.
**DeFusco, L.A. (2010). Toadstool! An Introduction to Edible Wild Mushrooms of New England. L.A. DeFusco, M.D.: Glastonbury, CT.—
This is, by far, the most expensive plant book I own. Many years ago, I saw it for sale on Amazon for $150. Since I hadn’t seen the book in person, I couldn’t justify spending this much, even though I really wanted it. So, I waited. Soon, the price crept up to $250. So, I waited a few more months. Before I knew it, the price was $3,000, then $5,000. I couldn’t believe it. It was a classic example of micro economics at work. Since the book was out of print and in very short supply, the price had skyrocketed. I knew that the price was artificial– that the value didn’t match the price. But, I didn’t know how big the gap between value and price actually was. Regardless, the fact that I couldn’t have it, made me want it even more. It began to feel like a prized basketball card that would always be out of reach. The pursuit brought back a lot of memories from being a kid. I checked a bunch of local book stores and waited some more, with no luck. Every month or so, I would check Amazon. One day, the price had dropped to $50. I jumped on the opportunity and bought it as fast as I could. About a week later, after not receiving it, I got suspicious. The company that sold it to me sent me an email claiming that someone else bought it first and they couldn’t fulfill my order. I didn’t believe them. I’m sure that they realized its market value shortly after selling it, and then cancelled the order. It would be another year before I got another shot at it. When the price dropped back down again, I snagged it for $45. This time I actually received the book. There’s not much to it. It’s very short, just 63 pages, which includes the title page, intro, bibliography, etc. It is self-published. About 25 species or so are covered, along with a few poisonous varieties. Most entries include low quality color photographs. He covers a little bit about where the mushrooms are found, how to identify them and how to prepare them. It’s surprising to me that the author is a medical doctor because he offers very little identifying information and hardly any sources. A rookie mushroomer could be easily poisoned if they relied only on this book and went off into the woods. This is why I always recommend consulting five or more books for every plant or mushroom you find, and only eating something if you are 100% sure of its identification. This book offers a fun glimpse into a man’s lifetime passion, but it is not worth $5,000. $50 maybe, but there are dozens of more robust, scholarly books on the market for $50.
***Elias, T.S. & Dykeman, P.A. (1982). Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.: New York, NY.–
A lukewarm field guide, but a handy resource. This was perhaps the first foraging book I owned, and I still have the original copy with tattered pages. I appreciate what Elias and Dykeman did putting this together as it gave me a critical tool to fuel my hunger for wild plant knowledge, especially when I didn’t know about many other books on the topic. It covers over 200 plants with photographs, seasonal charts, maps of distribution, and cooking suggestions. It’s all packed into a small size with much hardier pages than a National Audubon Field Guide. However, too many of the pictures are in black and white. Among the colored pictures, some of the most important are blurry (e.g. water hemlock and poison hemlock are impossible to identify by their pictures in this book, which seems sloppy to me given that they are two of the most dangerous plants in North America). Bad pictures limits a field guide’s usefulness in my opinion, which is why I don’t like to think of this as a proper field guide. The problem is that proper field guides in the edible plant domain are hard to come by, unless you consider Meredith’s Northeast Foraging a field guide, even though it’s a little bigger than most things you would want to bring with you on a hike. The other critique I have about Edible Wild Plants is that the cooking/processing directions are misleadingly simple, which can lead to disappointing results unless one references another book. You could chalk this up to the book’s small size, however, and don’t have to blame the authors.
****Elliman, T. (2016). Wildflowers of New England. Timber Press, Inc: Portland, OR.–
I have read A LOT of field guides over the years, and I can confidently say that this one takes the cake. Before you even get to the plants, Elliman spends time talking about the various ecosystems in New England, which is critical information for any forager to understand. The introduction also includes the usual explanation of plant parts, along with a not-so-usual key to flowers based on colors, petals, leaves and other patterns. He also includes a whole section on the plant families. Finally, after nearly 60 pages of high quality intro material, he dives into the plant species, organized by flower color. Each entry includes a single small, but high quality photo, along with the scientific name, common names, blooming period, height, habitat and several sentences of additional identification information. He also includes an extra helpful listing of which states it appears in and whether or not it is rare in those states. It’s a lot of information packed into a small amount of space. This is not the type of book you’ll want to use for finding out detailed information about a plant, including its edible, medicinal, or poisonous properties as none of those things are mentioned for 98% of the entries. However, this is the book you’ll want to use for identifying an unknown plant because most of the critical information is there, and it covers A LOT more species than most other wildflower books on the market. I haven’t counted the number of species treated, but it appears to be between 350 and 400. I learned about dozens of new species when I read this, some that I didn’t even know existed. It is a great companion book to Arthur Haines’ Flora Novae Angliae, the manual for identification of all vascular plants in New England. Between these two books, a forager has the critical scientific information they need to identify practically any native or naturalized higher vascular plant in New England, and probably the Northeast. I also love the fact that the photos appear adjacent to the text, instead of being isolated in a separate section, and the pages are rugged, instead of being toilet-paper consistency like they are in many field guides. This is a must own, and well worth the money.
****Falconi, D. (2013). Foraging & Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook. Botanical Arts Press LLC: Accord, NY.–
A brief work of art. Falconi and Hollender have created an artistic masterpiece with this book. I swear it has a heart and soul, and appeals to some dormant part of me that used to love magical children’s books. The hand-drawings are colored and more physically accurate than pictures of the plants themselves (impossible, right? Well, look inside the book and you’ll see what I mean). Falconi does an excellent job of describing the edible portions of each plant in minimal text below each drawing and provides page numbers for detailed recipes. The recipes are fantastic and comprise the bulk of the book. She also includes a plant biographies (kind of like a family tree) table, plant habitat/growing conditions chart, seasonal harvest chart, culinary uses chart, and tea guide (that’s right—a guide that walks you through all of the tea flavors and actions of each plant). The book could benefit from more citations or some form of demonstrated research about the science and ethnobotany behind the plants. But, the biggest drawback of it is that it’s too short. I wish it was twice as long and covered twice as many plants.
**Foster, S. & Caras, R. (1994). Venomous Animals & Poisonous Plants. Houghton Mifflin Company: New York, NY.–
A very useful field guide to the poisonous side of things. As I argue in the safety & responsibility section, I believe every forager should know poisonous plants as well as they know edible ones so that they can be safe. The pros of this book include the fact that it contains mammals, snakes, and insects in addition to plants. The plant and mushroom section is the most comprehensive, however, at nearly 200 pages. Pictures of the plants and mushrooms include hand drawings and photographs, a technique I find extremely useful for identification because if you examine just one or the other, it’s hard to see and comprehend all of the features. Each entry includes a description of the plant for identification purposes, as well as an explanation of its toxic properties and potential health effects. The major drawback of the book is that the entries are very brief and the health effects are not backed up with in text citations the way they are in Turner & von Aderkas’ The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms, which I review later on in this bibliography.
**Gibbons, E. (1964). Stalking the Blue-eyed Scallop. Allan C. Hood & Company, Inc.: Chambersburg, PA.–
A classic Gibbons book; this one focused on the ocean. It includes 49 pages on seaweed and seaside plants. The majority of the book is dedicated to fish and shellfish. Since this website deals primarily with plants and fungi, I won’t dive into the merits of the meat section of this book, but I will caution readers that we live in a different climate than the one Gibbons writes about in this mid-sixties publication. Nowadays, we have a higher prevalence of red tide, which can make certain shellfish fatally toxic in various locations at certain times of year. It’s imperative to call the red tide hotline in whatever state you’re fishing in, and double-check that information with the local shellfish warden. In regards to the plants and seeweed covered in this book, Gibbons covers a couple dozen species. It is classic Gibbons in the sense that each chapter is a rambling mind dump of identification information, recipes, and anecdotes. You have to appreciate Gibbons for who he was: a lifetime forager filled to the brim with passion. The pictures are hand-drawn and not extremely useful. I also get the sense that Gibbons was not as well-versed on the ocean flora as he was with inland plants. But, he makes up for this by describing all kinds of foodie experiments with some fun recipes and a hearty helping of historical culinary information pulled from multiple sources.
***Gibbons, E. (1962). Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Allan C. Hood & Company, Inc.: Chambersburg, PA.–
Perhaps the most famous foraging book of all time. Euell Gibbons is considered by many to be the father of the modern foraging movement in the industrialized world. Many people who have never foraged have heard of Gibbons. This was his first book, published in 1962. What makes this book unique, and gives it an almost cult following, is that it reads like it was written by a man who lived and breathed wild edibles his whole life out of necessity. The reason it reads like this is because Gibbons did, in fact, rely on wild edibles his whole life, as he grew up in extreme poverty and spent a fair amount of time homeless and wondering from one odd job to another. This book wasn’t published until he was 51 years old, and at that point he had over 40 years of in-depth experience to draw upon. The book’s main strength is its passion. I can feel Gibbons’ personality resonating from the pages and it makes me happy to be a forager. Another strength is the random details that Gibbons offers about preparing and cooking plants that you don’t necessarily find in other foraging books. The book has an equal amount of drawbacks. The hand drawn pictures are very weak and his descriptions of the plants are weak, so I would not recommend this book for anyone trying to identify species. I also find his recipes to be hard to follow because they seem overly specific in some ways and vastly vague in other ways.
**Gladstar, R. (2012). Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide. Storey Publishing: North Adams, MA.—
Gladstar covers 33 different herbs in this book. Some of the herbs are common garden plants and others are wild.This is less of an identification guide, and more of a guide to how to use these plants. In fact, she goes into great detail about their use, including what parts to use, how to use, and how much to use. Details on how to grow some of the plants are also covered. She provides high quality pictures of each plant, including some select pictures of various parts, including the roots; this is unique among plant books. Probably the most useful aspect of the book is the various recipes for medicine, tincture, tea, salve, face cream, etc. I would caution readers, however, to be conservative about the use of any wild plant as medicine. Although I support the practice, I also don’t personally believe that wild plants are inherently safer than commercial medicine or commercial supplements, if merely for the fact that measuring the dosage of active ingredients in wild plants is difficult and imprecise. Overdosing on wild plants can be just as dangerous as overdosing on commercial pills.
*****Haines, A. (2010). A Primitive Skills Guide to Important Edible, Medicinal, and Useful Plants of the Northeast: Volume 1. Anaskimin: Korea.–
A must have for the northeastern forager. Arthur Haines has not yet received the wide recognition he deserves as a true professional in the field, but it’s only a matter of time before people hold him in as high regard as they do Samuel Thayer. The photographs in this book are high quality and at least two photographs are featured for each species, which makes identification very helpful for anyone in doubt. Each entry has a very helpful symbol key, which helps readers quickly identify the use of the plant, whether it is for food, medicine, rope, fire, or weapons. His descriptions of the plants are concise, but communicate the most clearly distinguished features. Haines’ in-depth knowledge of the medicinal qualities of each of the plants shines through. He also cites the various tribes that have been known to use each plant. One would be hard pressed to find a plant book with as much information about identification, edible qualities, medicinal qualities, physical uses, and ethnobotany packed into one place. Also, Haines covers 95 plants in a very slim 218 pages (and by slim, I literally mean slim—the book is less than an inch thick)! This book may sell at an expensive price in some places, but it is worth every penny, and I strongly recommend it to not only northeast foragers, but to anyone east of the Mississippi.
*Hamper, S. (2001). Wilderness Survival Guide: A Manual of Basic Survival Techniques. Schroeder Publishing: Paducah, KY.
**Harlow, W.M. (1959). Fruit Key & Twig Key to Trees & Shrubs. Dover Publications Inc.: New York, NY.–
A handy supplement to a field guide for identifying trees and shrubs. It is essentially two different dichotomous keys, one for identifying trees by their fruit and another by their twigs. Dichotomous keys walk you toward identification by presenting two descriptions at every step and asking you two decide between them. After you decide, the key will send you to another step in the process, where you are presented with another choice, and so on until you arrive at the correct species. I like these two dichotomous keys because they are specifically geared toward northeastern and eastern trees, respectively. The book does a good job getting you started by explaining the reproductive organs of trees as they relate to the difference between angiosperms and gymnosperms, as well as berries, drupes, pomes, legumes, follicles, capsules, achenes, samaras, and nuts. The pictures are black and white cut-outs, which I prefer to whole black and white pictures because the details are easier to discern. However, it is an old book and the pictures are old too, so don’t be let down by the lack of modern graphics.
***Harris, J.G. & Harris, M.W. (1994). Plant Identification Terminology: An Illustrated Glossary. Spring Lake Publishing. Spring Lake, UT.–
Incredibly useful tool for navigating plant literature. As the title states, this book is an illustrated glossary of plant terms. Botanists may use 3,000 terms or more when describing plants. This book defines more than 2,700 of them and includes illustrations for over 1,900 of them. The illustrations are not works of art; they are rather simple, and sometimes not all that clear at explaining the definition. But between the written and visual definitions, most of the meanings can be discerned. The book also has several keys, such as a key to leaf margin type, leaf divisions and inflorescence types. Occasionally, I’ll look up a word that isn’t in this book, but it doesn’t happen often.
**Hession, J. & Michaud, V. (2003). Wildflowers of the White Mountains. Huntington Graphics: Burlington, VT.–
What a field guide should be. This little book is so handy and compact that it is often the only book I take with me in the field. It is not specifically for wild edibles, although occasionally the text will mention whether or not a plant is edible. It has many of the common plants found in the northeast with high quality color photos of their flowers. The species are arranged by color of flower and the bottom right hand corner of each page is marked with that color, so navigation is easy. The text is also directly below the pictures, which is something I appreciate immensely in field guides since it is so rare. The pages are also much hardier than the stereotypically thin pages in other field guides that could pass as toilet paper. Even though the book is short, there is a nice glossary in the back and a few pages dedicated to illustrations describing basic plant terminology. The biggest drawback of the book is that it doesn’t cover as many species as the leading field guides and the text is minimal, limited to about one paragraph per species.
**Hutchens, A.R. (1991). Indian Herbalogy of North America. Shambhala Publications Inc.: Boston, MA.–
An important reference book on the medical uses of plants. This book is not useful for identifying plants even though most of the entries have mediocre hand-drawn pictures accompanying them. It’s a fairly densely written repository of information on the medicinal qualities and applications of plants pulled from a number of sources around the world. The title is a bit of a misnomer in the sense that the herbalogy covered in the book is not just Native American or even necessarily mostly Native American. The medicinal claims made for each plant are usually not attributed to specific tribes. Rather, most of the citations are from sources outside North America, such as Russia. In general, I think the book would benefit from a lot more citations than it has, though it has a useful annotated bibliography at the end. My biggest gripe with the book is that Hutchens uses a number of medical terms that are not defined, despite the fact that there is a definition section in the early part of the book. This is especially true of the bodily influence section of each entry where sometimes half of the words are not defined and not described, leaving the reader clueless unless that person happens to have medical training. In short this book is not user-friendly, but it is a wealth of information about medicinal plants that serious foragers would find useful to own.
*Jamison, R. & Jamison, L. (2007). Primitive Skills and Crafts: An Outdoorsman’s Guide to Shelters, Tools, Weapons, Tracking, Survival, and More. Skyhorse Publishing: New York, NY.–
Not a plant book, but an interesting read for wilderness diet and cooking tips. I almost decided not to review this book here because it hardly discuses plant species; in fact, it covers even less than your average wilderness survival book. However, it does cover the Yucca plant and all of its various uses, including two pages on its edible uses (something that’s not applicable to the northeastern United States). The book also spends 11 pages covering the virtues of the paleo diet and why our modern diet is so divorced from the diet humans ate for most of their evolutionary history. I found the most interesting section to be the 11-page chapter on primitive cooking methods. If you’ve ever tried to cook food on a primitive survival trip and found yourself frustrated, this book could help you out. The major drawbacks of the book include the lack of plant or mushroom species talked about, the lack of pictures (save for the two black and white pictures of the Yucca plant), and the sexism. The authors may not be trying to be sexist, but their assumptions about stone age people reflect modern cultural gender norms. I think it’s naïve to assume that modern gender roles were automatically followed by cultures living over 10,000 years ago and that one gender template was universally applied across various stone age bands of humans. I believe we should be more honest with our lack of knowledge about the specific gender norms of ancient people.
****Kallas, J. (2010). Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate. Gibbs Smith: Layton, UT.–
The foraging book that will inspire you to go to culinary school. This is a high quality book with enough high quality pictures to easily identify all of the plants covered. Every entry also includes mouth-watering recipes with beautiful pictures of the prepared dishes. If the foraging movement needed a PR campaign, I would hire John Kallas to carry it out. Not only does Kallas challenge us to take our cooking skills to the next level, but he is a true scholar of plant morphology and nutrition. In fact, he has a Ph.D. One of drawbacks of the book is that it is not concise, sometimes making it difficult for a quick reference, and the book only covers 15 plants, far less than the average wild food book. Moreover, the plants covered are all, for the most part, leafy greens, which may leave readers craving a bit more diversity. In summary, this is a compelling book that may change your perspective on wild edibles. If you have a friend or family member who asks sarcastically why you eat “weeds,” buy them this book.
*Kirk, D.R. (1970). Wild Edible Plants of the Western United States. Naturegraph Publishers Inc.: Healdsburg, CA.–
An oldy, but somewhat goody. This is a guide for the Western United States, so I almost didn’t review it here, but given that it is a serious work, I thought I would. If this book was applicable to the northeast, I would have given it two stars. It’s quite extensive, covering 302 different varieties of wild edible plants. It’s clear that Kirk is a serious study of plants and traveled extensively around the western half of the U.S., exploring flora. Amazingly, there are drawings for almost all of the plants featured, a task that must have taken forever. Unfortunately, the drawings aren’t that good and would be pretty hard to use for identification. As is typical of books of this breadth, only 2-5 paragraphs are provided for each species, covering preparation and uses, habitat and distribution, and a description. In my opinion, the book is somewhat dangerous as it covers so many plants that one might think almost everything is edible, a characteristic that isn’t necessarily problematic if the nuances of edibility are described in greater detail. However, Kirk does not explain the nuances of edibility for many of the species, including some potentially harmful ones. Despite the drawbacks of this piece, I’m glad I own it because it contains some important information about which plants were eaten by which tribes, and it includes some nuggets of information about edibility that I didn’t know before reading it. But, definitely cross-reference his claims with some more modern books.
****Kuo, M. (2007). 100 Edible Mushrooms. The University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, MI.–
A thorough, clearly written guide. This book is almost as high quality as mushroom books come. Kuo is a careful researcher who takes the time to describe things accurately and clearly in a way that is easily understood by beginners. He also breaks up the mushrooms covered into helpful sections labeled “poisonous look-alikes,” “recommended for beginners,” “experience required,” and “difficult.” This makes navigation more challenging than the traditional mushroom field guide if you don’t know the name of what you’re looking for, but it helps to put a new mushroom in the appropriate context if you’re considering eating it. Each entry has one picture and sometimes two or three. The pictures are high quality, especially for a book that covers such a broad list of mushrooms, and they are certainly better than any general field guide. Some of the other new edible mushrooms guides (such as those by Alexander Schwab or Barbro Forsberg and Stefan Lindberg) have clearer pictures that take up entire pages, but they cover a lot less species. Kuo offers a number of detailed recipes in the back of the book, as well as general advice for how to harvest, clean, cook, and preserve every mushroom. My favorite feature is the “Focus Point” sidebars that appear from time to time and cover important mycological concepts, such as spore puffing, mycoparasites, universal veils, false gills, scabers, odors, and many more.
**Lincoff, G. (1981). National Audubon Society Field Guide to Mushrooms. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, NY.–
A run-of-the-mill National Audubon Society field guide. I appreciate that National Audubon Society field guides exist, and I own ones for plants, trees, mushrooms, and more, but I find them to be underwhelming. Like most guides in this series, the pictures are okay, though they are small, a bit grainy, and dark so the nuances in color are difficult to discern. The entries are brief, covering a description, edibility status, season, habitat, range, look-alikes, and comments covering miscellaneous facts. Like other field guides in the series, the pictures are in a separate section than the descriptions (a major pet peeve of mine) and the description section is printed on paper so thin and delicate that it could be used as toilet paper in a pinch. I’m not a huge fan of this field guide or any in the series, but I do find it to be a useful book to have in my collection.
***Lincoff, G. (2010). The Complete Mushroom Hunter: An Illustrated Guide to Finding, Harvesting, and Enjoying Wild Mushrooms. Quarry Books: Beverly, MA.–
A colorful book and a pleasant read. Lincoff’s book is a great primer on some of the most common mushroom varieties you’ll come across in our region and across the United States. Most of the pictures are big and pretty clear. His stories are interesting as well. A novice forager will quickly develop an appreciation for the complexity of mushroom hunting after reading about mushrooms in different cultures, extravagant meals, close calls, and exciting hunting techniques. Lincoff offers a helpful seasonal guide and then covers over 20 varieties in detail. Each section offers a description, cautions about look-alikes, tips on how to prepare and preserve, and stories about the mushroom. Because the pictures are good quality and the narratives long, it can lead one to feel overconfident in identification. Always remember to be 100% sure of identification and cross reference several books before eating any wild edible (I recommend five or more).
**Little, E.L. (1980). Field Guide to Trees: Eastern Region. Alfred K. Knopf: New York, NY.
*Mears, R. (2002). Bushcraft: An Inspirational Guide to Surviving the Wilderness. Hodder and Stoughton: London, UK.—
One of the more comprehensive survival books on the market, featuring a decent wild edible section. Like most survival books, this one is not written in a way that is easily accessible, although it has the advantage of being filled with lots of color photographs and drawings depicting various concepts. To truly learn the survival techniques discussed in books like this, one must practice the methods with help from experienced survivalists. However, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, as it takes you on a journey around the world, showcasing survival strategies from numerous cultures. Mears provides 24 pages on common edible plants and mushrooms found throughout Europe and North America. Photographs are a mix of low quality and high quality. Thirty-two edible plants are featured, along with 27 mushrooms and a handful of lichen and seaweed species. Each entry covers a sparse description of where they are found, and some include a sentence or two about how to eat them. Mears also offers several pages on the importance of minerals, carbohydrates, and proteins, specifically how our body reacts to shortages of these items. He also touches on foraging strategy in a survival situation. As a bonus, the book includes 23 pages on how to catch and eat various animals, insects, and other sources of protein from around the world. This “protein” section is one of the more comprehensive I’ve seen among survival books.
****Meredith, L. (2014). Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plums to Wineberries. Timber Press: Portland, OR.—
A great first book for the northeastern forager. If I were a novice forager living in the northeast, this would be the first book I would buy because it covers 120 plants, the entries are brief, and the pictures are high quality. The book is also a great one to own for experienced foragers as a source for general reference. In each entry, Meredith offers a tagline to help you remember the plant, as well as how to identify it, where and when to gather it, how to gather it, how to eat it, how to preserve it, and any health warnings such as poisonous parts, poisonous look-alikes, or issues with eating the plant in quantity. She also includes a section on future harvests for each plant, which I really appreciate as an environmentalist. In this section, she states whether or not a plant is native and/or invasive, and how to sustainably harvest it. In an age where foraging is becoming a fad among hipsters, hippies and doomsday preppers, it’s more important than ever to teach the virtues of not overharvesting. Like many foraging books, this book offers a list of the plants you can eat by season; an additional bonus to Meredith’s list is that it is also organized by where to find each plant. The biggest drawbacks of the book include its brevity and lack of citations. Novice foragers should be careful because the text is deceptively simple and even though this book is good, it shouldn’t serve as your only source for identification. As I recommend in my safety & responsibility section, you should reference five books or more before eating a plant for the first time.
***Mikolas, M. (2017). A Beginner’s Guide to Recognizing Trees of the Northeast. The Countryman Press: New York, NY.–
This book is a must-own for anybody new to trees, who wants to learn how to identify them. Most field guides are notoriously bad at offering useful information on how to identify something. They are usually good at offering the facts, but just not in a way that an amateur would understand. There is too much jargon, and too much cluttering of detail, without pointing out the characteristics that truly make a species unique. This book is different. Mikolas offers you a handful of easy-to-understand, easy to identify characteristics for 40 of the most commonly found trees in the northeast. The book is loaded with pictures, pointing out the features he discusses. He also offers multiple chapters describing the difference between commonly confused trees. A few edible qualities are mentioned throughout the book, but this is primarily an identification book and nothing else. My only pet-peeve is that he doesn’t show a least one picture of leaves, bark and general shape for each tree. I get that it’s easier to focus on just the most prominent identifying features, but it would be helpful for the reader to also see the other basic identifying features, if only briefly.
**Miller, O.K. & Miller, H.H. (2006). North American Mushrooms: A Field Guide to Edible and Inedible Fungi. Globe Pequot Press: Guilford, CT.–
An important mushroom book to own. This is a pretty comprehensive book on North American mushrooms, edible or not. It’s one of the books I would recommend having as supplemental material to back-up edible-only guides. Pros of the book include a short illustrated glossary and a dichotomous key to each mushroom type. I also appreciate that every species in the book has a notation as either edible and choice, edible, edibility unknown, inedible, nonpoisonous, may be poisonous, possibly poisonous, probably poisonous, poisonous, or deadly poisonous. This makes it a handy reference for any mushroom you’re looking up. The biggest drawback of the book is that it’s almost a little too heavy for use as a field guide and the pictures are small.
***Niering, W.A. & Olmstead, N.C. (2001). National Audubon Society Field Guide to Wildflowers: Eastern Region. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.: New York, NY.–
A great wildflower reference guide. This is the second wildflower book I turn to after Hession and Michaud’s Wildflowers of the White Mountains, which is a little faster to use. However, this book is a lot more comprehensive than Hession and Michaud’s guide. It features over 600 species, arranged by flower color and flower shape within each color. This makes it really useful for identifying a flower you haven’t seen before. I also find the comment section for each species to be useful, as it often points out subspecies and little tidbits about the plant name or history. However, like the other National Audubon Society books, I can’t stand that the text and pictures are in separate sections and not all text entries have pictures. I also can’t stand the really delicate pages that make it difficult to use in the field where there is exposure to wind, rain, and mud. As I always say, paper that soft would be better served as toilet paper than pages in a book. However, I do understand that it helps to make the book smaller than it would otherwise be.
*Petrides, G.A. (1958). A Field Guide to Trees & Shrubs. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company: New York, NY.–
A great book for quickly honing in on minute differences in leaves and twigs between species. It begins with a section focused on how to use the book that also explains basic leaf and twig morphology. Then, there is a very useful section showing different tree silhouettes. These are hand drawn or computer generated, which is nice because pictures of full trees and shrubs are often hard to discern. Even worse is when books only explain the shape, but don’t show it. This book is a great resource for actually being able to learn tree shapes. The utility of the hand-drawn pictures continues throughout the rest of the book as numerous species are covered. Leaf and seed drawings, along with very brief descriptions, help readers identify species. Species are organized in groups by basic identifying features such as “conifers with needles and cluster” or “broad-leaved plants with alternate compound leaves.” Some great dichotomous keys are featured in the appendix: one for winter, another for trees with their leaves, and yet another for trees without their leaves. The drawbacks of this book include the brevity of the descriptions (they are solely focused on identification without noting human uses or historical facts) and the absence of any photos.
*Pollan, M. (2002). The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World. Random House: New York, NY.–
This isn’t the usual type of book that I review, but I’m including it here because it is so important. If you know anyone who doesn’t respect plants and their role in humankind, ask them to read this. Pollan takes the reader on a journey across several centuries, exploring the relationship between three important plant species and humans: apples, tulips and potatoes. It begs the fascinating question of who is cultivating whom in our human-plant relationship. Pollan also helps readers understand the evolution of plants, our dependability on them, and how they are shaping our future. I highly recommend this book to anybody interested in nature, or not interested in nature, for that matter.
****Richardson, J. (1981). Wild Edible Plants of New England: A Field Guide. DeLorme Publishing Company: Yarmouth, ME.–
A forgotten gem of the foraging world covering over 188 plants and mushrooms. Most existing copies of this book are second-hand. Even though the pages are falling out of the binding in my copy, I just feel lucky to have one. The book includes a single color photograph for most of the featured species, along with the occasional hand drawing throughout the text. These photographs are small and not particularly high quality, but not bad for 1981. Richardson provides general guidance sections on hunting wild plants, plant poisonings, and identifying and harvesting edible plants. Then, she provides fairly robust detail about each species, organized in sections by habitat. She covers both edible and poisonous species. She lists other common names affiliated with the species, the seasons it can be harvested in, the habitat, and then several paragraphs including identifying information, processing methods, and random information. My favorite aspect of this book is the random information. I knew a lot about the species covered in this book before I read it, and I still learned a lot of new things.
*****Schwab, A. (2006). Mushrooming Without Fear: The Beginner’s Guide to Collecting Safe and Delicious Mushrooms. Skyhorse Publishing: New York, NY.–
The best book a rookie mushroom forager can own. Schwab’s scant 128 pages only covers 12 mushrooms, but the quality makes up for the quantity. I know a number of rookie mushroomers who indiscriminately hunt and eat whatever edible mushroom they can get their hands out, without starting with the safer, easier ones and slowly working their way up. The hail-Mary approach scares the shit out of me. If you’re inexperienced, please start with the safe ones. This book covers the safe ones (with the exception of the red-cracked bolete which can be confused with other boletes in the northeast). Schwab provides details about the basic physical aspects of mushrooms and some tips on mushroom hunting in general. He also offers eight safety rules to always follow when mushrooming. I highly recommend taking these rules to heart when you first start off. Next, he spoon feeds readers the specifics on the 12 varieties covered, including a positive ID checklist (which he urges you to check off completely) and a cap color pallet (which is handy since mushroom color deviates a lot more than rookies may think). This book is worth more than the $15 it often sells for; it could save your life.
***Seymour, T. (2013). Foraging New England. Globe Pequot Press: Guilford, CT.–
An accessible book, with a bit of character. I respect Tom Seymour for a lot of reasons, most notably because he’s been writing about foraging in New England since before the modern hipster back-to-the-earth fad started to take root. In this slightly beefed-up, newer version of his primary book, he covers 80 plant and mushroom varieties, and six sources of wild meat. He’s one of the only authors in recent years to cover seaside plants in our region. Each plant section offers a quick summary of synonyms, basic uses, range, similarity to toxic species, best time to harvest, status, and tools needed to harvest, followed by a more robust 1-2 page description and a recipe. Unfortunately, the recipes are very bare bones, amounting to half a dozen sentences with little specific direction (there are a handful of recipes in the back of the book that provide slightly more detail). Occasionally, he provides tips on freezing or drying too. Most of the photographs are decent (definitely much better than they were in the first edition of the book), but they are not quite top tier when compared to the highest quality books published in the last couple years. A major drawback is his lack of depth providing identifying information and his lack of citations. His approach is more journalistic than academic. The main value added from Seymour’s collection is that he covers some plants that books written for a national audience ignore and he guides you with a dash of story and a pinch of character. If you are considering purchasing any of Seymour’s books, I would recommend this one as the highest quality. You don’t need to buy this one if you already own Wild Plants of Maine, since they provide almost the same information.
***Seymour, T. (2010). Wild Plants of Maine: A Useful Guide. Just Write Books: Topsham, ME.–
A useful book, but not the primary reference I would rely on if I lived in Maine (and I do). As I mentioned in my last review, I respect Seymour a lot. But, this book, covering 63 species, is not as good as his other popular book, Foraging New England. In short, it covers less species and the photographs are lower quality. On the other hand, unlike Foraging New England, this book does offer a few close-up photos adjacent to far-away photos in order to more accurately depict a plant’s form. This book also provides longer descriptions for some plants, but not others. As is typical of Seymour’s writing, you’ll get some of his Maine character, a few stories, and a few interesting plants that are often ignored. What you’ll desire more of is some academic rigor and more detail about key identifying features.
***Spahr, D.L. (2009). Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms of New England and Eastern Canada. North Atlantic Books: Berkeley, CA.–
A good edible mushroom guide for our region. Like most decent guides, this books starts with explanations on what mushrooms are and tips for collecting. It even has a bonus section that most books don’t have, and that is an explanation of the best ways to photograph mushrooms. The main text covers a modest 23 varieties of mushrooms, but goes into a fair amount of detail about each. The pictures are pretty high quality and there are a lot of them, so you can see several examples of each mushroom from different vantage points. Spahr also does a good job covering details about the cap, gills, stem, flesh, spores, when and where to find them, and how to prepare them, along with a section covering other comments. The drawback of the book is that it doesn’t do a great job explaining how some of the mushrooms covered are really easy, safe varieties and some are much more advanced, dangerous varieties. So, if I were an amateur, I would not rely on this book as a primary guide. I would use it as a supplement to other guides that do a better job holding beginners’ hands. I appreciate this book because it is one of the few written specifically for our region and it has a nice mushroom/wine compatibility table in the back, along with a rating for how good each mushroom tastes when it is cooked different ways.
*****Thayer, S. (2010). Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants. Forager’s Harvest Press: Birchwood, WI.–
One of the two best wild edible plant books ever written. The other is written by the same author. Samuel Thayer is like a modern day Euell Gibbons in that he’s revered by most of us and his books are among the most popular in the nation. In fact, he’s called upon to review many of the other leading sources. Nature’s Garden covers 42 plants in exhaustive detail with top notch pictures. Bear in mind that although most of the information he presents is applicable to the northeast, it is written and photographed from his experience as an upper mid-west forager. Thayer offers in-depth identification features for each plant—so in-depth that it serves as the gold standard in this field. In fact, it’s hard not to become frustrated with the seemingly apathetic, half-ass way that most authors describe identifying features after you get spoiled by Thayer’s style. In addition, Thayer covers range, habitat, harvest, and preparation for each species. He does this all well, with clear, thoughtful language. Best of all, he sets a high bar as a scholar, citing his sources diligently, and embracing the complexity of this complex topic. For example, he is quick to point out factual inaccuracies that are commonly circulated in the plant literature. I’ve especially enjoyed reading about his view on the death of Chris McCandless, the edibility of black nightshade, and nuances of processing acorns. The one thing this book is lacking is a list of specific recipes. He provides a depth of material on processing and a fair amount of detail on cooking, but refrains from guiding you all the way to a delicious dinner. Don’t let this hold you back; buy this book immediately if you don’t already own it. I promise you won’t regret it.
*****Thayer, S. ( 2006). The Forager’s Harvest: A guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants. Forager’s Harvest Press: Birchwood, WI.–
The gold standard for foraging literature. As I mention in the review of Thayer’s other popular text, Thayer is the modern day equivalent of Euell Gibbons in popularity. His popularity is well earned because he’s a strong writer, a great photographer, and a true scholar. Unlike most wild edible authors, Thayer cites his sources and isn’t afraid of describing the complexity surrounding species, their look-alikes, and edibility. This book offers identifying information, look-alikes, range, habitat, harvest, preparation, and storage information for most of the 32 featured plants. Thayer doesn’t just tell you how to identify a plant; he tells you precisely how to get it. He also provides a useful introductory section that includes some tips on harvesting plants in general. He also offers a well-written chapter on safety. Take note that although most of the information he presents is applicable to the northeast, it is written and photographed from his experience as an upper mid-west forager. Regardless, this book is an absolute must own for any forager in the United States. And, I also highly recommend his video under the same title. Although the video only provides a fraction of the information presented in the book, it offers a few additional details and some intangible perks like visual demonstrations of processing techniques, Thayer’s amazing fashion choices and his sheer passion for the topic. Every time I watch one of the segments, I can’t help but feel overjoyed to know that there are other people out there like Thayer who love this stuff as much as I do. The wild edible fever is contagious!
*Thoreau, H.D. (2000). Wild Fruits. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York, NY.–
A walk through the New England countryside. This book is considered Thoreau’s last manuscript. Unpublished until after his death, it offers a glimpse into what he saw when taking his famous afternoon walks between his morning and evening work sessions. What I like about the book is that it talks about some plants that most other books ignore and it offers a dozen or so pretty good drawings. Thoreau also does a good job of documenting the changing appearance of the species throughout the year. Unfortunately, this is a mediocre edible plant guide at best. Not all the plants Thoreau covers are edible, and for those that are, he offers very little information about how to process them. Like his famous book, Walden, this book is an exercise in deliberate observation of the world around us. Not everyone has the luxury to spend as much time observing the world as Thoreau did, but we can all strive to find a least a little time to do so. In my experience, there is nothing more fulfilling than paying attention to the natural world and how it changes over the course of a year. I feel that this exercise has the potential to not only positively impact individuals’ lives, but also has the potential to transform an entire culture and its relationship to nature. In fact, this cause is what motivates me to publicly share my knowledge of wild edibles. Thoreau sums up the transformative experience nature can have on us in his most famous passage from Walden: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
*****Turner, N.J. & von Aderkas, P. (2009). The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms. Timber Press: Portland, OR.–
The best poisonous plant and mushroom book on the market. Every serious forager should own this book. I believe that it takes a serious study of poisonous plants to be a truly safe forager. This book starts with an emergency page with some tips of how to deal with an active poisoning. Chapter one includes a 42 page overview of the various toxins found in plants and mushrooms, including how they affect the body. Chapter two consists of 51 pages dedicated to mushroom poisoning. For each featured species, the authors include a very brief “quick check” that explains what the species is and how it affects you. This is a useful synopsis for anyone in a panicked mindset flipping through the pages of this book because they or someone they know just ate a potentially poisonous mushroom. Next, the authors provide a description of each mushroom, followed by an explanation of where it occurs. Finally, the toxicity is described in more detail and extra thoughts are discussed in a notes section. Turner & von Aderkas are true scholars who diligently cite sources throughout the text and reference actual poisonings, instead of just relying on hearsay. Chapter three spans 88 pages, covering poisonous plants, shrubs, and trees found in wild areas. They cover each species with the same format used in the mushroom chapter. Chapter four provides 67 pages on toxic garden and crop plants, and chapter five consists of 36 pages on houseplants. The authors are good about not treating the poisonous vs. edible dichotomy as black and white (except in cases where it clearly is). As I explain in the safety & responsibility page of this website, edibility is often a spectrum. A great bonus feature of this book is the appendix, which includes long lists of edible and medicinal plants (both cultivated and wild), along with a few notes on edible and poisonous qualities for each. The appendix also contains a decent glossary of terms, followed by a long references list. Decent photographs accompany most of the species covered in the book; however, the photographs are often not good enough to make a positive identification. As I always say, you should use several books (more than five) to make an identification. The only major drawback of this book for the northeastern forager is that it has a southwestern Canada slant. Although the authors do a great job representing all of North America, most of the pictures and many of the case studies are specific to their region of the continent. Therefore, I treat this book as my anchor poisonous reference, and I supplement it with several other books on poisonous plants and mushrooms.
****Uva, R., Neal, J., DiTomaso, J. (1997). Weeds of the Northeast. Cornell University: Ithaca, NY.—
This book is a must own for any serious forager. The authors cover over 170 plants with multiple colored photographs and occasionally drawings for each plant, including some close ups, some images of seeds, seedlings, roots, leaves and other key identifying features. For each entry, they include synonyms, a general description, propagation strategy, seedling description, mature plant description, type of underground structure, flowers and fruit, postsenescence (after death) characteristics, habitat, distribution, and similar species. The book also features some nifty shortcut identification tables, in addition to the standard dichotomous key, which it also has. The authors touch on edible or poisonous qualities for some of the plants, but not all of them. After all, the real value of this book is not its information about edibility, but rather its extensive inventory of the numerous weedy plants you’ll bump into over and over again that do not appear in most wildflower books or edible plant books. Yet, they are plants that you’ll want to know because many of them do have edible or medicinal qualities. And, the ones that don’t have edible or medicinal qualities are still important to know because they will help you distinguish edible plants from their look-alikes. In summary, this book is a tremendous resource that must have taken a heroic effort to put together.
*Vermont Game Warden’s Association. (1990). Vermont Wildfoods Cookbook. Fundcraft Publishing: Collierville, TN.–
A nice little cookbook covering a range of wild food. This is primarily not a wild plant cookbook. However, it does feature some tasty recipes for a fair number of plants, including fiddleheads, day lilies, milkweed, wild leeks, wild rice, wild blueberries, wild apples, high bush cranberries, butternuts, dandelions, shadberries, elderberries, wild grapes, staghorn sumac, chokecherries, raspberries, and blackberries. The recipes come from Vermonters all over the state who have been eating wild food for years. In addition to the short section on plant recipes, the book also offers longer sections on fish, big game, small game, waterfowl, furbearers and non-game, and flora. I commend community efforts like this to share individual knowledge in an effort to build collective knowledge about how to enjoy the fruits of our landscape.
****Watts, M. T. (1963). Tree Finder: A Manual for the Identification of Trees by Their Leaves. Nature Study Guild Publishers: Rochester, NY.–
A nifty little pocket guide. By little, I mean literally; the 60-page book is only six by four inches flat, and can fit in some pockets easier than a smart phone can. It’s mostly a dichotomous key, but also has a few other handy elements. For example, the opening four pages explain habitat terminology with sketches. Most authors don’t bother doing this and just expect you to be able to read their minds. The back cover has a scale printed on it (in centimeters and inches) that you can use to measure leaves when you’re out in the field. Over 150 species are covered in total, including most of the northeast species. This book is exactly what it tries to be. My one complaint is that the drawings of the leaves are not high quality and they are all colored the same dark green, even if they aren’t that color. A black and white sketch of each leaf would probably be easier to discern.
***Weatherbee, E.E. & Bruce, J.G. ( 1982). Edible Wild Plants: A Guide to Collecting and Cooking. Ann Arbor, MI.–
A concise gem. There is a reason why most reputable wild plant authors mention this book as one you should own. The authors cover about 40 wild edible plants in less than 60 pages, and then dedicate over 30 pages to recipes. They also dedicate a few pages to defining common plant terms, which I think is enormously helpful for people starting out. I also appreciate their ranked list of plants that are high in five different vitamins and minerals—it’s useful for memorizing practical nutritional information that would help you in a survival situation. The major drawback of the book is that it is not specifically geared toward the northeast, though about 90% of the plants it mentions can be found somewhere in the range. Another drawback is that the pictures are in black and white and are relatively grainy. But, the authors did a nice job taking close-up photos of most of the plants, and made sure to offer multiple vantage points to help you with identification. The book’s greatest asset is the sheer amount of information that is conveyed in minimal text regarding identification, poisonous look-alikes, processing, taste, and smell. Most of the information is fairly basic, but I was surprised to learn a few things when I read this.
*Wiseman, J. (2009). SAS Survival Handbook. Collins: New York, NY.–
A fairly comprehensive survival book. This book is longer and more useful than most general survival books on the market. Moreover, Wiseman provides more information on wild edibles than your average general survival book, but some of the information on edibility is suspect. The information is also very generic, skipping over most geographic characteristics of the species he mentions. In total, there are 51 pages on edible plants, trees, and fungi, including poisonous varieties. Most of the species covered are depicted by medium-quality colored drawings. At most he offers a paragraph on each species covering a mix of identifying features and edible parts. Later in the book, he includes 11 pages on natural medicine. The natural medicine section consists of a couple pages on how to prepare plants for medicinal use, while the rest of the chapter lists plants that can be used to treat common ailments, along with 28 color drawings. As a bonus, this book offers 55 pages on using animals as food.
****Zachos, E. (2013). Backyard Foraging. Storey Publishing: North Adams, MA.–
This book helps to fill a gap in the wild edible plant literature. There are not may books that tackle edibility in the gray area between outdoor ornamentals and weedy wild plants. Zachos tackles this niche head-on with style. She covers 65 plants that you’ll often find in backyards and on the edges of homesteads. In addition to the usual suspects like dandelion and purslane that most books cover, Zachos points out common ornamentals that many wild plant enthusiasts stay away from like dogwood, lilac and spiderwort. It’s amazing how many different plants and trees we cultivate compared to the small number that we actually eat. The entries for each plant in this book are short, in most cases lacking enough identification detail to make a full-proof identification. But, Zachos makes up for this with extraordinarily high quality photos, offering at least one close up and one far away photo of each plant. She also presents some excellent ideas for how to eat the plants and what types of recipes to incorporate them into. As a bonus, Zachos offers advice for how you can selectively eat your ornamentals, while maximizing the aesthetic role they play in your yard. Not all of the plants she covers are common in the northeast, but more than half of them are.