One of the most common questions I get asked is: “What are your favorite books on edible plants?” or “What are your favorite foraging guides?”
Back when I started foraging, I didn’t even think to look at Facebook groups and other social platforms, which I think have added a lot to the wild food world. Social media sites are useful, apps like iNaturalist can be too, but I like to think of those resources as one tool in a larger kit, and a couple good wild food guides are something you need to have on your shelf. There’s really something to be said about good, old-fashioned reading, and poring over the writing of true a true expert. That, to me, is the biggest reason I keep around a selection of edible plant books.
I have lots of books, and if you ask me about my favorite cookbooks it’ll probably take me a while (and I’ll be non-committal) but picking out my favorite foraging books is pretty easy. I don’t have a big list, rather, I keep around a select few of my favorites. These aren’t all of the books in my library on edible plants: only the ones I couldn’t live without—the best foraging guides, at least in my opinion. Writing a long list is easy. Writing a short list is much harder.
Real quick before I break out the list: you’re going to notice that there’s a lot of books by Sam Thayer here. Sam’s books are held as the gold standard of foraging books by a lot of people, myself included. For me, part of the reason his books are so good, is that, yes, each book is a guide, but unlike many other books (especially field classic “field guides”) that cover many more plants, only 30 or so wild edibles are covered in each of Sam’s books.
There’s something to be said about good, old-fashioned reading, and poring over the writing of true foraging experts
What you end up getting is an incredible deep-dive on each plant, along with eloquent essays that will inspire you to run outside and eat all the things. All the books I mention here are good, but in my opinion, everyone should have Sam Thayers books (currently there’s three with another on the way soon).
Foraging Guide Books by Sam Thayer
Sam Thayer’s first book is a classic, and covers many of the plants that will be helpful to beginners, as well as some of the more obscure ones like wapato (Sagitarius latifolia) and groundnuts (Apios americana). Notable plants in this book:
- Cow Parsnip + Wild Parsnip
Sam’s second book is worth buying for the comprehensive section on acorns alone. Besides every squirrels favorite nut, other favorites of mine this one also covers are:
- Black walnuts
- Higbush cranberries
- Garlic Mustard
Sams third entry is every bit as authoritative and informative as the first two. Notable plants in this I recommend knowing are:
- Miners Lettuce
- Japanese Knotweed
- Wild Caraway
Wild greens make up the vast majority of wild food I eat by weight (besides venison) and Edible Wild Plants by John Kallas is a solid book on greens. Lots of greens. Kallas takes an in-depth look at many different plants, as well as sharing plenty of recipes and different ways to preparing various, specific greens, showing how they can be incorporated into a diet.
Dina Falconi’s book is very well known. Foraging and Feasting is a tome of edible plant knowledge, and one I go back to again and again for it’s beautiful, extremely detailed illustrations that do what simple images of a plant cannot: show you multiple parts of a plant you can eat in a single image. The book also covers a few wild aromatics, which is a nice compliment to other books that may mostly cover edible greens, nuts, fruit and starches.
Ellen Zachos’ book covers a wide variety of things covered in some of the other books here, but it also covers a number of edible plants that aren’t covered by other foragers since they might not be “wild”. Edible landscaping and garden plants are one of her specialties, besides being a Harvard grad and former Broadway star. This one is specifically good if you’re a gardener. You can have your hostas, and eat them too.
This one is a stretch as it’s not exactly a foraging guide, but it’s close enough. Around the World in 80 Plants by Stephen Barstow is a love letter to the sheer variety of delicious plants you can find in the wild as well as gather and plant in a garden. Barstow has collected some of the most obscure plants everrr in this book, and if you’re a long-time plant nerd, or an aspiring one, you’ll love it. Here’s a few things that stick out to me:
- The entry on wild onions and ramps is excellent—worth buying for that section alone (Cheremsha!).
- Barstow also mentions obscure cultivation techniques and one plant-hack that’s truly remakable, and allows you to change the flavor and color plants. Hint: it turns them white.
- Skirret. Google that.
- Edimentals. Google that also (he has a group on FB too).
Further Reading: Ethnobotany
Foraging books and guides are great, and they’re the first ones I pick up when I want to know something about a specific plant. But what happens when you want to know some other edible plants that aren’t in the books? They’re out there.
Field guides can only cover so many things, also, American/European schools of thought are historically white centric—guilty of ignoring and disregarding foods that indigenous people eat that are valuable, and exciting. Here is where my collection of ethnobotanical books comes in handy. Some of them aren’t casual reading, but when you look at them carefully, there’s oodles of golden nuggets in them. LIST COMING SOON!