Editor’s Note: This resource has been revised and updated for 2019.
Foraging has been growing more popular over the last few years, so there have been plenty of foraging books published. Unfortunately, many of them are terrible. Authors in the space have a tendency to rely solely on other, more in-depth, books for their information.
Some of these books aren’t even suitable to teach you the basics, because they focus on the lives of the authors and sprinkle in some recipes. That’s nice unless you’re expecting to learn how to forage.
Some end up spreading false information about what plants are toxic because the author didn’t do the research or experimentation to find out. That’s understandable if you’re unsure and don’t want to get sued, but it doesn’t help your readers learn.
But there are gems out there, written by truly knowledgeable people who have experience actually finding, harvesting and cooking wild plants. Whether you’re a beginner or highly experienced, we’ve done our best to find you those gems for you, no matter where you live in North America, or if you’re interested in greens, meat, or mushrooms. There is also a new book out by Thayer, arguably the most popular author for foraging.
On Field Guides
Books on foraging aren’t going to be enough by themselves. Very few of them have more than 100 plants because they go into serious detail about how to find, harvest and cook them. Few of them will be small enough to bring outdoors with you, and most are not weather-proof. So, you’ll need a field guide of some sort to help you make comparisons between similar plants while you’re out there.
You want to find a very broad field guide, in terms of what plants are covered, but you want it to be as specific to your area as possible. For example, my “Plants of Southern Ontario” is much more useful than my “Trees of Ontario”. The former has all sorts of trees I could never find in my area, which is overwhelming for a beginner.
The only field guide I would suggest you won’t get much use out of is the Peterson’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants. It doesn’t contain enough information about which parts of the plants are edible to be functional. Also, in some sense, it’s too broad for a beginner, because it’s not specific enough to a single area. But it’s also not broad enough in that it doesn’t include poisonous plants.
When you’re learning to forage you always start by learning which plants are poisonous or toxic, that way you can avoid them. While the best foraging books, like those by Thayer, include a lot of information about dangerous look-alike plants, many don’t. So you need a field guide to help you double-check, and this one won’t do the trick.
The Best Foraging Books To Start With
1. Any of Samuel Thayer’s books
One of Samuel Thayer’s three books is an ideal place to start, especially the first: The Forager’s Harvest. Thayer provides very deep information about a selection of plants, including what they look like during different seasons, which is a huge boon to the beginner.
That being said, no matter how experienced you are, you will learn something from Thayer. He has expansive personal experience with each of the plants he covers and goes out of his way to correct misconceptions several other books will cite as fact.
For beginners, the best part of the book will be the philosophy about foraging, general identification tips, and the safety information. He goes into the ethics of harvesting, how to store them, what the plants will taste like, and recipes too. Thayer also includes personal anecdotes, which some people love and others could do without.
Those in the North Eastern United States to the Midwest will find these books the most useful. If you are west of Rockies or far south you’ll find a few of your local species here, but not most of them. In that case, you may be better off investing in the third book.
The second book is Nature’s Garden. It provides much the same excellent information that Thayer’s first book does, but for different plants from a wider geographical area (to be clear: he doesn’t repeat plants found in the first). There are less than 50 plants in this book, but the level of information about each is simply unsurpassed.
Thayer now has a third book, published in late 2017: Incredible Wild Edibles. There’s 36 new plants cataloged in this book, including a few invasives, more southern plants like persimmon, and more western plants like strawberry spinach.
An author of another popular foraging book, Thomas J Elpel, has weighed in on Thayer’s latest book, and the criticisms he’s received, namely that he discusses too few plants.
Elpel writes, “My bioregion, in the high, arid northern Rockies of Montana, is probably the least-covered region in this or any of Thayer’s books. Nevertheless, 20 or more of the 36 featured plants, shrubs, and trees occur at least sparsely in my region. Moreover, Thayer discusses many additional related species, broadening the scope considerably beyond the mere thirty-six plants advertised in the title.”
Elpel continues, “There is always something new to learn about familiar plants, and I thoroughly digested every entry even remotely related to my bioregion. Miner’s lettuce (Montia perfoliata), for example, is quite familiar, while Siberian miner’s lettuce (M. sibirica) was unknown to me until I read about it in Thayer’s book and then discovered it the same day, growing along the stream we were fishing north of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.”
2. Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons
This book was first published in 1962 and, like many good old books, has a great deal of forgotten information that you will find useful while being out of date in some respects (like with invasive species, or with pleasing the modern palate).
Still, it’s a foraging staple because it has thorough plant information, cooking tips and recipes (including main dishes, pies, and meat dishes) and plenty of foraging philosophy. The images are line drawings, so you’ll want a field guide to help with identification. There are also personal anecdotes which, again, may entertain or annoy you depending on your disposition.
What climate does this book address? It’s a bit from everywhere. Consider what Mother Earth News says about Gibbons’ varied experience:
“During the years between, he lived — as a hobo, beachcomber, teacher, surveyor, cottonpicker, boat-builder, and more — in the Philadelphia area, Washington state, Indiana, California, New Mexico, Maine, Hawaii, and the South Seas. It was while residing in Snyder County, though, that he was able to pull together his years of experience in the volumes that followed Stalking the Wild Asparagus.”
Plus, Gibbons’ Stalking the Blue Eyed-Scallop is an essential for those on the coast (all of them in North America, plus some for Hawaiians). The book includes some, but certainly not substantial, fresh-water information.
Also, Stalking the Healthful Herbs is a worthy follow-up if you’re interested in medicine or herbs. Gibbons’ other books aren’t as useful from a foraging standpoint.
3. Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast by Hank Shaw
This is the most modern starters book on the list and is really aimed at the beginner. There are fewer images and recipes here than in some other books, but the detailed information about how to forage is excellent. Unlike many modern foraging books this one, obviously, has a great deal of information about meat, which makes it a very useful resource for those who would like to begin to hunt or fish. The recipes are varied, modern and delicious.
Not being from the south, I was initially concerned that this book didn’t have much for the southern forager outside of meat, until a review from Robyn at Modern Hunters set me straight. She has found several of the berries and nuts to be easily accessed in California.
If you want a snap-shot of the book, see Shaw’s website: Honest Food.
4. Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate by John Kallas
Kallas does an excellent job of documenting a series of leafy greens, otherwise considered weeds, in this book. He organizes the book by seasons, has detailed images for each plant, and discusses the culinary character of each. He focuses on plants you can find in most areas of the US.
The Best Foraging Books for Your Area
It’s ideal for you to also have a book that has information specific to your area.
1. The Regional Foraging Series
Most Americans will find that one of the books in this series applies to their area. All four have very good identification information including images. Meredith and Slatterly’s are usually highly reccomended.
2. Foraging the Mountain West by Thomas Elpel and Kris Reed
If you’re in the Rockies, you’re going to want to pick up this book, as the area is generally poorly covered by other books. Thankfully, its a diverse book that includes fishing and even dumpster diving.
While this book covers many edible plants, it also talks about medicinal, dye, and textile plants. Be sure to get the expanded version published in 2013.
4. Southern California: “The New Wildcrafted Cuisine” by Pascal Baudar
Baudar’s books are about making fancier dishes from foraged food, and it can be done. The pictures are gorgeous, and there a recipes, but much less identification information. Don’t let yourself be swayed by the criticism Baudar has received for this book. Yes, Southern California has various fragile ecosystems that you shouldn’t tamper with, but Baudar does practice ethical foraging. Those who criticize him seem not to want anyone to forage at all.
The Best Books for Foraging Mushrooms
Our fungi friends present a challenge for the forager because so many of them are dangerous to eat. If you plan on plating any fungus, you’ll need to have spent some time getting serious knowledge and, preferably, learning from someone with more experience. But there are great books on the subject that can help you out.
1. Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora
This vast tome is the book everyone suggests for mushroom foraging, and there is a good reason. Arora also wrote a smaller book: All That The Rain Promises and More which is specifically for the Pacific Northwest and may be less intimidating for the fungi beginner.
Also, the National Audobon Society Field guide to Mushrooms is an inexpensive and vast guide that can help you make identifications, though it doesn’t include foraging information.
Which books will you be taking out into the wilderness with you this spring?