Food Preservation · Gardening · Healthy Living

Foraging Field Guides

I’ve been reinvigorating my interest in foraging again, now that we have a little slice of land of our own and are closer than we’ve ever been to the great outdoors. Last week I was excited to take a foraging and edible landscaping class out our community college with local native plant expert Caron Wenzel, of Blazing Star Nursery. It was a very inspiring couple of hours. Hearing what Caron had to say about the accessibility of foraging and being a part of our local food system really reinforced the idea for me that I’m on the right track with setting up Preservation School, and getting hands on with the local food movement here in McHenry County.

I also learned about some interesting plants that are stalwarts of flower gardens everywhere, that are actually quite edible. The ubiquitous orange day lily can be eaten, and in fact the petals can be used to lend a yellow/orange hue to cooked dishes, in the style of saffron. Talk about a more affordable option – day lilies basically grow like weeds in the Midwest. Hostas are another garden standard that are edible – the leaf shoots can be picked early in the spring before they unfurl, and treated in the same manner as asparagus. Roses in their entirety are edible, as are marigolds and everything in the viola family. Roses and violas are especially nice to candy – dip the petals in egg whites, then sugar, and let them dry. They can then be used to decorate cakes and pastries, or be buried in sugar in order to create a delicately flavored sugar to use in baking or tea. So Caron had a lot of great info I’ve not encountered in my reading thus far. We also talked about edible weeds (lambs quarters, dandelion, chickweed, etc.), fruit and nut trees common to our area, and touched on a bit of history and permaculture. It was a great class, and I’m excited for the next one that Caron offers – I’m hoping for permaculture! I have my heart set on turning my tiny little town lot into a beautiful, edible food forest.

But a class is only an introduction; getting out with a good field guide and getting familiar with the native flora is really the best way to learn. There are so many foraging books on the market these days, which is funny because five or ten years ago there were only a few. I own three, and routinely check out new ones from the library to see what’s new, but honestly the three I own are my favorites – I’ve probably had them at least ten years, and they serve me well.

The most comprehensive of the three is my Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants. I actually have an older edition, but plant edibility doesn’t really change much year over year, so I’ve not stressed about getting a newer edition. Two of the things I like best about this guide are the full color photographs and the expert line drawings. Clear photos and drawings are so important to making accurate identifications out in the field – you’ve got to understand what you’re looking at. The written descriptions are also thorough yet concise, and easy to follow. This book is a must have if you’re looking at foraging for edible food.

Another great reference book on my shelf is Abundantly Wild: Collecting & Cooking Wild Edibles in the Upper Midwest. As the title indicates, it focuses on plants growing in the Midwest. It’s also got great full color photographs and very thorough, clear descriptions. An added bonus of this book are the recipes – not only does it show you how to forage for edibles, but it also explains how to cook with them when  you get them home.

The final book in my personal collection is The Herbalist, and it’s really fun. Originally written in 1918, I have the 1986 reprint. It’s a lovely little book with old-time drawings, but does have some color plate images as well. Not only is it a field guide for identifying useful plants (not only edible, but also plants for use in cosmetics, dying, aromatherapy and medicinal), but it’s also outlines what each plant can be used for or treats, as well as how to create remedies or products from the plants. It’s a gem of a book.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two authors that have written prolifically about foraging and edible landscaping that have books too numerous to mention – Euell Gibbons and Rosemary Gladstar. I’ve read and own several books by both, and if you’re a serious student of the edible plant world, Gibbons and Gladstar are must reads. So what are you waiting for? Get out to the library and check out some books!