Before beginning I would like to thank Jason of The Fifth World RPG for sponsoring this episode. Imagine a collaborative, structured, storytelling experience where you and your friends can come together and explore what the future could hold for your descendants, hundreds of years from now. The Fifth World is a free open source, open world RPG that uses the framework of permaculture to consider these possibilities. Find out more at TheFifthWorld.com.
The Forager’s Harvest by Sam Thayer
I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting what I found between the covers of this book. I try to approach my first interview with each guest as a novice, and to ask questions from a place of little to no-knowledge, so I wasn’t deeply familiar with Sam’s work and writings when I spoke with him. I didn’t know why Sam is considered one of the go-to gurus of foraging, including from other respected individuals such as Arthur Haines. Then I read Sam’s book and was blown away.
Sam Thayer’s work, as represented in The Forager’s Harvest, is personal. He does this. There is an authenticity that comes through in what he writes. He expresses a genuine joy for those who forage, as well as admonishing those who repeat information without a personal understanding of what they do. I can respect that and it’s individuals like Sam who push me to get better and be better in my own permaculture work.
I enjoyed this book a great deal not only because of the personal perspective but also because Sam’s writing is funny, and reminds me of Mary Roach, the author of books like Stiff of Gulp. The Forager’s Harvest is filled with one-liners and humorous offhand references. One that comes to mind as I work on this episode is in the section on parching grains.
Parching can be done in a metal container over virtually any heat source (but not a volcano; that’s dangerous).
The humor and personal touch makes this 360 page book enjoyable to read, and Sam provides all the information you need to get started identifying plants, including the recommendation you get additional field guides to compare your initial identifications against. Foraging and gaining enough understanding and knowledge is a slow process. I remember one of my earliest forays into wild food where I misidentified a plant and only someone else asking, “Are you sure?” that sent me back to the page and finding my mistake.
Though this book is weighty, Sam doesn’t overwhelm you with a little bit of information about a lot of plants, like you find in something like Peterson’s Edible Wild Plants: Eastern/Central North America. Rather, there are 32 plant entries that Sam has extensive experience with and enjoys eating. Each of the plant profiles is a standalone essay, so you don’t have to read the whole book to make use of it.
In each plant entry there is a personal anecdote from Sam regarding the plant and a piece of his history with it, along with a description, information on the range and habitat, and harvesting and preparation methods. Along with the text are full-color plates to aid in identification of the plants throughout the life cycle, not just when the plant is at the fullest leaf cover or the flowers are the most beautiful. This is important as the various parts of a plant you might use are harvested at different times of the year.
I’ll admit my surprise in the number of useful edible parts available from an individual plant including root to leaves to stalks and stems, as my earliest memories about foraging and wild foods came as a Boy Scout, but much of what we were taught at the time, and I’ll date those experiences to the late 80’s and early 90’s, was about leafy greens and berries. We didn’t touch on roots, nuts, rhizomes, or tubers.
Picking up this book, you should read pages 1-77 first before jumping into foraging and trying to eat something you’ve just found or think you know well. These first few chapters cover what you need to know about the book, getting started with edible wild plants, plants identification and foraging safety, as well as how to harvest, prepare, and store your wild foods, and a nice chart that shows when to find and harvest the plants profiles in the book.
Overall, this book is worth the cover price just for the first first 77 pages, as well as the 8 page glossary, regardless of where you live. However, as plants have specific ranges and habitats, you may not live in an area where all the plants detailed grow. In the Eastern Woodlands of Appalachia in Pennsylvania where I live, I’ve seen most of the ones listed, but not all of them. You’ll find a list of the plants that Sam includes in this book below so you can decide whether or not this is an appropriate resource for you and where you live.
Should you wish to pick up a copy to add to your library you can purchase this book directly from Sam at foragersharvest.com for $22.95, which is incredibly inexpensive given the wealth of information he’s included. If you pick up a copy, get two and give the extra to your friend and begin sharing the joy of foraging and wild foods with others. As a parent I find foraging is a great activity with my young children, and look forward to teaching their friends as they get older.
Plants Profiled in The Forager’s Harvest
- Ostrich Fern (Matteucia struthiopteris)
- Cattail (Typha angustifolia, T. latifolia)
- Wapato, Arrowhead (Sagittaria spp.)
- Wild Rice (Zizania aquatica, Z. palustris)
- Wild Leek, Ramp (Allium tricoccum)
- Smilax, Carrion Flower (Smilax herbacea, S. ecirrata, S. illinoensis, S. lasioneura)
- Butternut (Juglans cinerea)
- Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila)
- Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)
- Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis)
- Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)
- Goosefoot, Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium spp.)
- Spring Beauty (Claytonia spp.)
- Marsh Marigold, Cowslip (Caltha palustris)
- Swamp Saxifrage (Saxifraga pensylvanica)
- Serviceberry, Juneberry, Saskatoon (Amelanchier spp.)
- Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)
- Pin Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica)
- Ground Bean, Hog Peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata)
- Hopniss, Groundnut (Apios americana)
- Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)
- Sumac (Rhus spp.)
- Wild Grape (Vitis riparia and other Vitis species)
- Basswood, Linden (Tilia spp.)
- Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)
- Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa)
- Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
- Virginia Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum)
- Nannyberry, Wild Raisin, Black Haw (Viburnum lentago)
- Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum trilobum, V. edule)
- Burdock (Arctium minus, A. lappa)
- Thistle (Cirsium spp.)
The Forager’s Harvest is also one of the books featured in the Traveling Permaculture Library Project. If you’re not involved, you should be. Find out more about at thepermaculturepodcast.com/library.
Are you already foraging and want to share your insights? Are there other experts, authors, or books you’d recommend? Get in touch:
The Permaculture Podcast with Scott Mann
P.O. Box 16
Dauphin, PA 17018