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Wild Food Books

The Earth's bounty provides a lot more food than you find in grocery stores. After 1962, when Euell Gibbons published Stalking the Wild Asparagus, books about foraging became popular. In 2003, the Army published one as a survival guide. This morning when I searched for "edible wild plants" I scored 262 hits.

Here's an interesting one: Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not so Wild) Places, by "Wildman" Steve Brill, with Evelyn Dean. Brill, who offers foraging events around New York City, poses on the home page of his website with a shoot of Japanese Knotweed clenched in a toothy grin. His book has a large scope: "the most common useful wild plants of the continental United States ... and southern Canada." In chapters organized chronologically by habitat, I counted 126 plants profiled in a chatty style like Gibbons', with stories and interesting facts — including ferns, seaweeds, and desert plants. In addition Brill mentions many others in brief lists. Illustrations by Dean are excellent for identification.

This book not only gives a plant's medical uses but also its active ingredients and their action on the body — with detailed cautions about those which are also poisonous.

Wild Plants I Have Known... and Eaten, by Massachusetts native Russ Cohen, is not on the list — because Cohen has given all proceeds of the book to its publisher, the Essex County Greenbelt Association. For more information call (978) 768 - 7241, or visit Cohen describes fourteen plants in chatty detail, then briefly gives "tidbits" about 27 others. This smaller book focuses on plants common around here (but no ferns).

Cohen's book has lots of black-and-white photos, but they're rather small, and often not adequate for identification. More useful are illustrations by Stephanie Letendre for all the featured plants and two in the tidbit section. A chronological table shows when to harvest what.

Cohen too conducts foraging walks — most in Essex County, but his schedule has included Williamstown, Worcester, Dunstable — and the Nashua River Watershed Association in Pepperell (all in Massachusetts).

Neither book treats mushrooms (Brill remarks that takes a whole book by itself). Both give recipes as well as pointers on safety and foraging technique. Cohen talks about foraging with children, and discusses ecological considerations in greater depth; Brill describes habitats and identification in more detail.

I'm thankful this holiday not only for wild foods, but also for books showing me them.

© Copyright 2005 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 18 November 2005

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