An important part of our foraging courses is choosing the best foraging guide book. Which is difficult, as just using one guide book normally leads to uncertainty and even accidental poisoning… I have been intending to put this section online for a little while now, so here we go:
If you are identifying a plant in the field (literally) you need a good, generic wildflower guide. The novice forager will probably know the common names for a few plants, but most will be just “wild flowers” (although the general botanical knowledge of the average person in the UK is surprisingly good!). Guide books which rely on an index of common and latin names aren’t much good for beginners, you need to be able to identify a flower or plant by the features you can see. The guide book I use first when coming across a plant which is alien to me is the classic “Wild Flowers of Britain and Europe” by Lippert and Podlech. The edges of the pages are colour-coded for flower colour, and the individual descriptions of the flowers include descriptions of the shape, size and habitat of the plant. I can normally identify the flower with about 75% certainty within a few minutes of browsing.
Regional variations, often published by local natural history societies, are particularly useful here. For North Wales I like the “Wonderful Wildflowers of Wales” series, which are seperated into volumes and categorised by environment. Inside the back cover there is also a grid with thumbnail photos of all the flowers included in the guide which is most useful.
If you are fairly certain you have identified your plant, you now need to know if it is edible. This is slightly quicker, but requires a foraging guide book specific to the environment you are in (woodland/hedgerow/coastal). Guides covering plants found in all environments in the UK do exist, though they tend to only cover the common or popular items, and miss out some real gems. I often recommend the “River Cottage Handbook Series” by John Wright. The three volumes that cover foraging (Hedgerow, Seashore and Mushroom) are witty, enjoyable and comprehensive. They provide information on the taste and texture of the plants, history on their use and anecdotes from the author’s experiences in collecting them. You could just sit and read these volumes cover-to-cover (and I have done) like a novel.
Another good pocket guide is the Collins Gem version of “Food for Free” by Richard Mabey. This is an example of a good, generic foraging guide that has the common edible plants, but not everything you might find. It is a worthwhile guide to carry when out and about, and I have two or three copies in various rucksacks and bags.
The third type of foraging guide I recommend for people is the table-top type that are absolutely useless for carrying around with you but look rather good on the bookshelf and should be owned by any serious wild food enthusiast. The obvious choice is the latest version of “Food for Free” by Richard Mabey. This book is worth buying just for the photography contained within, and the descriptions, recipe ideas and holistic approach to foraging are spot on. I can think of little that is wrong with this book!
The next book I would suggest would be “Flora Brittanica”, by the same author. This, like “Food for Free” is too large to carry around with you, but is great for identifying samples of plants that you have brought home.
Foraging literature and information isn’t just about plant identification – it can be rather useful to read about the lifestyle that can surround living on wild food. Over recent years there have been several books written by those who have tried to live for extended periods solely on foraged food, the two best of which are “The Treehouse Diaries” by Nick Weston and “The Wild Life” by John Lewis-Stempel. The former is about a young chef who spends a summer living in a tree house in a broad-leaf woodland in the south of England, and the latter is an account of a writer trying to live entirely from what he can gather, catch and shoot on his 40-acre farm on the Welsh borders. Both are engaging reads and cover similar ground (Nick actually references John’s book in his), although I think I enjoyed The Wild Life more. I found a lot of parallels between both accounts and my own life, foraging on a professional basis and teaching bushcraft skills all year round, and the reliance on what is available in the natural environment. If you are contemplating changing your diet to mostly comprise wild and foraged food I urge to get yourself a copy of each first.