A free PDF of Michael R.S. Moore’s herbal formulations and materia medica for 500 plants is available online here.
If you don’t know the name of a mystery tree but you are familiar with botanical terms, this is a cool site that helps you deduce your species.
The best comprehensive field guide to native plants of the Pacific Northwest is the book affectionately known, in plant geek circles, as “the Pojar.” It has great photos and some ethnobotanical uses, too. The authors are authorities.
My favorite wide-spectrum field guide for urban plants across the country is “Wildman” Steve Brill’s Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places. It has 260 illustrations and thorough treatises on hundreds of common wild plants found across North America. Steve’s been foraging since he taught himself how to do it in the early 1980s. He is not only very experienced, but also a proud science nerd who knows what he’s talking about and takes accuracy seriously. Buy it directly from Steve’s website here.
I also love The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants by Sam Thayer. It has a handy calendar that pinpoints when each plant is available and edible in North America. Sam also has a brand new companion edition called Nature’s Garden with new plants and a fun chapter about his experience eating wild for a month. Sam’s books are excellent. The photographs are very high quality, his narrative approach makes the content fun to read, and the detail he gets into is unparalleled. (Read my review of Nature’s Garden here.)
Identifying plants gets a lot easier once you know the secret patterns that tell us what they are. Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification by Thomas J. Elpel is a great guide to breaking the code.
If you live in the Pacific Northwest, check out Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West by Gregory L. Tilford for a field guide with good color photos.
An off-beat, funny guide to wild mushrooms of the west is All That the Rain Promises and More: A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms by David Arora.
Native American Ethnobotany is a mighty 927-page encyclopedia of plant uses by anthropologist Daniel E. Moerman. This is great once you’ve got the common or Latin name of the plant you’re interested in and are looking to dig deeper. This is not for identification — there are no pictures or drawings.
Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods From Dirt To Plate by John Kallas is an excellent beginner’s guide to 15 common weeds found across North America. It has a strong emphasis on identification and basic botany with outstanding photographs of the plants at all stages of their life cycle. Includes recipes. (Read my review of this book here.)
Try the book Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers by Stephen Harrod Buhner if you’re interested in herbal brewing. It’s an enjoyable read for those interested in European folklore, too.
Langdon Cook, a Seattle forager and blogger, recently penned a foraging memoir called Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager about getting mushrooms, squid, ferns and other Pacific Northwest goodies. It has recipes at the end of each chapter and approaches foraging from a foodie perspective.
The best way to learn how to identify plants is to meet them in person with an expert guide leading the way.
I offer plant identification walks. Visit my Classes page for details.
Others who offer plant walks include John Kallas of Wild Food Adventures, also in Portland, Steve Brill in the New York metro area, and Fergus Drennan the Forager in the UK. There are many wilderness skills schools proliferating around the country. You can also Google “Native Plant Society” along with the name of your state for some leads. In NJ, check out Return To Nature.
Nationwide, some highly regarded herb schools include:
*Michael Tierra’s East West Herb School out of Santa Cruz, CA is a multi-year distance course with an annual week-long residency component, and family and professional herbalist tracks of study
Howie Brounstein’s Columbines School of Botanical Studies near Eugene, Oregon
*7-Song’s Northeast Herbal School of Botanical Medicine in Ithaca, NY
*Susun Weed’s Wise Woman Center near Woodstock, NY
* Paul Bergner’s North American Institute of Medical Herbalism in Boulder, Colorado
*A distance-learning course offered at the late Michael Roland Shaw Moore’s Southwest School of Botanical Medicine in Arizona
*A correspondence course offered by the Rocky Mountain Herbal Institute
*CoreyPine Shane’s Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine in Asheville, North Carolina
Here’s a good list of more herb schools across the country.
You can also find out about more than 80 wilderness survival schools across the United States and Canada here, such as:
*TrackersNW in Portland and Bend, OR, and the Bay Area, CA
*Teaching Drum in Wisconsin
*Tom Brown’s Tracker School in New Jersey
*Boulder Outdoor Survival School in Utah
*Jon Young’s Wilderness Awareness School in Washington
*Jon Young’s correspondence course, Kamana
*Primitive Pursuits in Ithaca, NY
There are a number of plants that can make you sick if you eat them, so it’s a very good idea to familiarize yourself with the poison plants in your area, especially if they look like edible ones (for instance, poison hemlock looks a lot like wild carrot).
A bigger concern is exposure to pollution, chemical pesticides and herbicides. The further you are from civilization, the less chance of contamination you have. It’s a good sign if you see lichens growing on the trees, since they are usually too sensitive to grow in polluted air.
John Kallas, a Portland, Oregon-based botanist and foraging expert, offers the following safety advice: “Don’t gather within 4 feet of an old house because of lead paint. Don’t gather within 30 feet of a highway — and even then, preferably gather uphill — because of nickel and cadmium from the batteries, petroleum chemicals wearing off tires and washing off the side of the road, coolant, and gasoline. And never, ever, ever gather near railroad tracks. They’ve been putting pesticides and herbicides in those areas for the last 100 years.”
Check out Gregory Tilford’s book “From Earth to Herbalist: An Earth- Conscious Guide to Medicinal Plants” for helpful tips on sustainable harvesting.
Some herbalists advise removing no more than 1 out of every 20 plants in a stand. Others say you could take up to 30%. The intention is:
- To leave enough plants standing to allow for propagation of the species
- To be kind to the non-human animals, for whom the plants are both a food source and a habitat. (And some animals even use herbal medicine!)
You can harvest invasive species or weeds much more liberally, since they’re so prolific and arguably detrimental to the local ecosystems.
You can also take any amount of berries, seeds or nuts from a plant without harming it, however it’s a kind gesture to sprinkle some on the ground to help the plant reproduce. And it’s nice to leave food for the animals who depend on the wild.
Also consider familiarizing yourself with the laws in your area, because they’re often set with the intention of protecting endangered species.
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