A Brilliant New Foraging Book, and notes on poisonous plants

Of all the people alive whom I don’t actually know, Samuel Thayer is the one that I would most like to meet for a walk in the woods. His combination of erudition, common sense, and perspective is unique in the field. His two previous foraging books are among the most worn and frayed books on my shelves, and I’m thrilled to add a third to my foraging collection.

One of my favorite things about Thayer’s books is that there is very little repetition from one volume to another. If a plant that was thoroughly explored in one book is brought up in the next book, you can be sure that there is going to be new information that you really want to know.

Incredible Wild Edibles begins with several general-information chapters which are by no means the usual blather and which you should actually read because they concern safety, legality, and sustainability. I also recommend reading the section called The Chicken Feathers Guy, which describes how some people knock the joy right out of foraging and food preparation, for themselves and for others.

Then there are the plants. They include some which are new to me, such  as the creeping bellflower and the purple poppy mallow.  The latter is a common ornamental in my  high desert area, and I am embarrassed that I never knew it was edible. There is a good chapter on bladder campion, a weed that I admire because it’s always the last green I harvest in winter and the first green of spring.  Some of the described plants are common invasives becoming ever more common, such as fennel. How fortunate that it’s delicious. As Thayer says in the context of another invasive plant: “All this hatred directed against a plant just because it grows.”  Several varieties of mulberry are discussed, and Thayer is effortlessly erudite about their confused taxonomy.  He also mentions culinary uses of the mulberry leaves and flowers, without repeating the old wives’ tale that they are hallucinogenic. (Please, other foraging writers, stop just picking up this stuff from each other and repeating it as gospel.) The chapter on pokeweed deserves special discussion. This is the perfect example of a food that was a seasonal staple in many parts of the country, and everyone who ate it knew how to prepare it safely. Now, because it needs a preboil and because writers quake in fear of liability, they make it sound as if the plant will leap out of the ground and stab you given half a chance. Thayer gives a sensible explanation of exactly what you need to do, explains why he refuses to live in constant fear of liability, and leaves it at that. Personally I haven’t tasted poke shoots since I moved to the Southwest almost twenty years ago, but I finally got a couple of plants going last year and am looking forward to a small feast next spring. Preboiled and blanching water discarded, of course.

Now, for some brief comments on poisons.  There’s an element of real hysteria about the dangers of foraging, and strange tales are told, such as that expert Euell Gibbons died of eating a poisonous wild plant. This is nonsense; he had Marfan’s Syndrome and died of an aortic dissection, a common complication of that disease and not preventable in those days. There are some seriously poisonous plants in the world, definitely including some that will kill you. That said, most poisonings are cases of ignorant misidentification or misuse,  and if you are going to forage, you owe it to yourself and others to take your hobby seriously and get all the information you need to identify every wild plant you eat BEYOND A DOUBT and know about any special prep that it needs.  If your hobby was woodworking you would take the trouble to learn to use a saw safely, wouldn’t you? Foraging is less likely to harm you because, after all, your ancestors lived by foraging for millions of years, and you have access to a lot more information than they did. There are so many tasty wild plants that cannot reasonably be mistaken for anything poisonous that you can stick to the basics and still fill your plate much of the year. But Sam Thayer includes clear photos of all potential look-alikes and descriptions of how to tell them apart, so if you have his books, there is really not much excuse for error.

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