Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants
By Samuel Thayer
With spring just around the corner (at least as I write this review!), my thoughts always turn back to fresh, local foods: what we grow on our farm, what will come into season from other local farmers and also, what we will forage from our land. There has been a dramatic increase in attention to foraging over the past decade, leading to the resurgence of many previously lesser-known foods—foods like purslane, leeks and many types of mushrooms—but also to the rediscovery of the fact that many so-called “weeds” and other often unwanted plants are actually meals waiting to happen.
Thayer is one of the best at teaching people to appreciate these wild, traditional foods. His book starts off on a humorous note—instead of a disclaimer, Thayer gives us a claimer. In an age where many authors write poorly researched, often shoddily fact-checked works, Thayer stands behind his book 100 percent.
He then moves on to important introductory matters—where and why to forage, along with how to do so responsibly. The latter is a very important matter, as successful native cultures that relied on traditional foods were very careful to collect them in ways that preserved and enhanced the food supplies they depended upon. Those who neglected proper harvesting paid a heavy price, and if we are not careful, we run the risk of doing the same (and, in some respects, we are already paying the price). The point is that foraging done right, like farming done right, enhances rather than harms the environment. Thus, anyone getting into foraging needs to learn the rules and methods for different forageable foods.
One of the main rules is knowing the right part of plants to harvest—namely, the meristems. Meristems are where growth occurs in plants, and thus, they are the most edible and enjoyable parts. Meristems govern almost all foraging, so Thayer takes the time to explain what they are, what they look like and why they matter.
From there, Thayer gives an overview of how he and his wife went on a one-month “wild food” diet. This included deer, many types of seafood, maple syrup and many other foods that some would consider relatively common, along with an extensive array of not-so-common ones. The meals that Thayer presents as examples are of particular interest, since many remind me of similar meals that traditional groups consumed before the displacing foods of modern commerce altered so many dietary landscapes irrevocably. This section is instructive and honest—foraging and food preparation take time. Whereas the average American spends only about thirty minutes per day on food, the Thayers, if they were to go on a 100 percent foraged diet for an entire year, would dedicate roughly six times that (i.e., three hours).
The subsequent sections represent the heart of the book. First comes a foraging calendar. This is especially useful for those new to foraging, as you can’t forage what isn’t available, and you only want to forage certain things when they traditionally were collected and consumed. Then, plant by plant—with lovely pictures, extensive descriptions, warnings for any major look-alikes and more—Thayer meticulously walks us through Nature’s garden. Each section contains all the information you need to forage and feast upon each particular plant. Each section is also a glimpse into Thayer’s rich life, filled with stories that shape and inform his experience of plants and wild foods from his childhood to this day.
Thayer does not appear to present the plants in any particular order, and the plant profiles vary substantially in length. Some, like acorns, go on and on, in a fashion that is much to be appreciated. This is because acorns are an incredible food source but require far more skill and care in collection and preparation than most wild greens. So Thayer varies his approach, making sure readers get all they need to succeed with each plant.
The extensive pictures help make sense of the text. The plant-by-plant approach means you can read the entire work or just pick it up when you are in the mood to learn about one or two particular wild foods.
Whether you are new to or experienced with foraging, Thayer’s book will serve you well. With spring set to arrive any day (at least, most of us hope!), it is a timely tome to enjoy during the final, lingering days of winter, preparing us for the bounty that spring brings. Two thumbs up.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2019