People new to foraging (I’d class myself as intermediary if cornered, but I like the idea of dispensing with the anxiety around achieving something called expertise and instead simply resolving to learn from each other continuously) often want advice on which guides to consult. I’m going to go gradually into more detail in this section about particular books that I’ve been using, as and when I have the time. But to start off, my first advice would be to grow a library over time, allowing your developing interests to determine any specialisms (such as fungi, herbalism, brewing or coastal foraging, for example) that you might find yourself compelled to go deeper into. Follow that white rabbit, it’s a lot of fun. But that response is not very helpful (sorry) in answering the question: where to start?
First of all, I’d say there’s almost no wrong book to start with if it succeeds in whetting your interest and leading you to other useful books. That said, one that sets out to be a general, wide-ranging introduction is probably a good jumping-off point in order to fire your enthusiasm and the sense of possibility.
Second, choose something appropriate to your environment and bioregion – there’s not a lot of point in starting with a book on what’s forageable in Texas if you live in Shetland.
Third (though possibly most important), start with two books, not one. And make at least one of them a fairly newly written or recently updated title, and the other a rather more venerable old guide. And from there, if you feel you want – or need – to keep immersing, build up a healthy diversity on your shelf.
A couple of reasons why this third point is important:
- Every foraging guide I’ve come across is idiosyncratic – it is always shaped by the particular passions, interests, palate, experience and knowledge of the individual author. None is comprehensive. You’ll find sometimes baffling omissions from even the best and most celebrated guides. I’ve found instances of writers ignoring – or at least giving scant detail on – plants because they didn’t particularly enjoy them, and doing so proudly. Other omissions are just baffling – such as the fantastic River Cottage ‘Hedgerow’ guide by John Wright describing Alexanders as an “excellent edible species”, but only mentioning it in passing as part of his entry on the poisonous Hemlock Water-dropwort and not giving it an entry of its own [NB I realise now that he covered alexanders in his earlier ‘Edible Seashore’, which explains the omission from Hedgerow]. It can be frustrating, but I’m happy to respect a writer’s individual path through foraging and, if they’ve ignored or pooh-poohed a plant I want to explore, to accept the challenge of seeking out another writer who sees value in it.
- Old vs new: Our collective knowledge changes over time. Some older books, for example, heartily recommend comfrey without reservation – newer books might mention that heavy consumption of it has recently been linked to dangerous liver conditions. Others might acknowledge that new research but take a middle and more relaxed way, pointing out that generations of people have eaten comfrey without ill effects, and so why not carry on in moderation. (And going to the internet might uncover still more usefully finessed treatments of this kind of debate.) Conversely, going to older books can allow you to learn about old recipes or uses that have faded away but that might be worth exploring, at the very least for an insight into the ways we used to live, eat and perhaps heal, even if some of these ways might now seem bizarre or unpalatable. Cross-reference – and get pleasure from doing so rather than finding it a chore or as a source of anxiety when finding conflicting advice.
Fourth, consider pairing up your foraging guide with a plant identification guide. Few books dedicated to foraging provide photographs or drawings that are consistently clear to leave no room for doubt that you’re picking what you hope you’re picking! Those illustrated with pictures rather than photographs are often more useful: the plant of interest is not confused with background foliage of other plants, and a drawing provides a useful generic depiction of the species whereas a photograph will include an individual plant’s idiosyncracies – the equivalent of our wrinkles, pimples or knobbly knees, which may confuse. If all that sounds like an accumulation of books that you might not make use of, I doubt you’ll regret it, as an interest in what’s edible will often mutate into a wider interest in the ecological niche of the plants you’re seeking, then to the wider ecology of your area, and then likely on to an appreciation of and curiosity about the non-edibles around you. Besides, you needn’t spend a great deal of money: check the nature sections of your local charity shops each time you go in, and you’ll soon accumulate a useful, unique collection of guides for 50p a title.
For what it’s worth, here is what is on my shelves – some I use regularly, some are hardly looked at (though probably will be eventually); some I sought out specifically, others are serendipitous charity shop finds. I’ll try to add more detail over time, beyond the simple book titles.
Obviously, I’d be very interested to hear what’s on your own bookshelves, how you use your books and guides and what you’d recommend.