Handbook for eating out … side
‘Foraging New England’ by Tom Seymour, Falcon Guides, 2020
This handy manual makes for a fun companion for a wander through field and forest, seeking what is available all around us that can be nibbled, steeped for tea, or dug up to use in stew.
It is subtitled “Edible Wild Food and Medicinal Plants from Maine to the Adirondacks to Long Island Sound,” which covers a lot of terrain. But there are plenty of entries relevant to the Adirondacks.
Largely divided into foraging zones, from “fertile streamsides” to “waste places,” the book also has a section on mushrooms, medicinal plants and “animals,” although the animals are limited to crayfish, bullfrogs, mussels and clams. Each entry comes with information about range, best times for foraging, tools needed, if any, a photograph, and a recipe of some sort.
Just out my back door in summer, for example, is common plantain, a plant whose leaves when crushed can soothe an itchy insect bite. But also the young leaves can be steamed or boiled for a nice green side dish. Ground ivy is also plentiful in my yard, and that can be brewed into tea that is rich in vitamin C.
One plant that I’m curious to find is the groundnut. Listed in the streamside plant section, its languid leaves look undistinguished from the photograph, but the descriptions says it is an aggressive vine that produces nut-like tubers underground. Apparently, when boiled, the tubers resemble the taste and texture of potatoes or turnips.
My one complaint about the book is that the photographs are not sufficient to accurately identify some of the plants. If I were a serious forager, I would want to cross-reference this book with at least one other plant identification book. And certainly, of course, mushrooms should be approached with caution and plenty of information.
Seymour is a pleasant companion, filling the book not only with useful information but also anecdotes from his own foraging life. About cattails, for example, he described how the sprouts, shoots and flower spikes can be eaten. Then he mentions, “One of my favorite cattail marshes recently fell victim to a shopping center. By design or by accident, the developers left part of the marsh intact. Now I park in a paved parking lot and pick my cattail spikes within a stone’s throw of my car.” He can even get poetic. About trout lilies, he writes: “I find the exact shade of yellow very similar to the color of the just-risen sun’s rays as the light darts in my kitchen window and illuminates the floor.”
This makes for a good starter book for curious would-be foragers. The author also emphasizes responsible foraging, advising to collect only what is needed, to make sure to leave plenty of the plant left to thrive. The beginning section also contains brief warnings about all kinds of cautions, from spiders to private land, from poison ivy to giardia. But Seymour presents himself as a good-natured, sensible guide to your explorations in the natural world.