It’s easy to become captivated by wild food and medicine. There’s a vitality to wild plants that is unsurpassed, and a nutrient load that is astonishing. More truly though, it’s connection that enamors us—a link to the natural cycles and sustenance of the earth, including a realization that a generous supply of nourishment and healing is springing up all around us.
If you’ve ever felt frustrated trying to choose a reliable field guide to take foraging with you, you’re not alone. There are heaps of books on the subject, and the selection can be dizzying. It’s truly important—you might even say a matter of life and death—to make solid choices in this department. To give you a hand, we cozied up in the Chestnut library and got studious, reviewing all the regional wild food and medicine books we could get our hands on, and checking each one for botanical accuracy and attention to detail. The best are queued up here, and there’s a little something for everyone, from bright-eyed beginners to seasoned foragers and plant enthusiasts.
In the spirit of cold-season stockpiles and cozy reading nooks everywhere, we’ve gathered a list of our most cherished books on wild food and herb foraging. Plenty of fantastic field guides and wild food books didn’t make it into this post. We don’t receive any compensation for promoting the books in our list—they are simply our personal favorites. We’ve included links to purchase directly from the author, when applicable, but you can find almost all of these books online or order them through your local bookstore. Note that some of these books cover medicinal and edible uses, whereas some cover only wild foods.
We herbalists have a unique take on the commonest of herbs: instead of dismissing them as mundane or maddening, we choose to embrace wily botanicals with enchantment and enterprise. These medicinal and edible weeds—vulgar villains to most—are the herbalists’ beloveds. This alchemical perspective, transforming the unplanned and uninvited into a veritable treasure, is a handy approach in life that needn’t be limited to weeds.
The cold months of the year bring a flurry of beastly germs to our doorstep. These wee-but-wicked pathogens must sense that our immune systems are vulnerable—especially during the holidays, when rich food and drink prevail. I like to start bolstering my family’s immune systems early in the cold & flu season; well before everyone around us is sniffling and sneezing. Practices like eating a nourishing diet; getting plenty of sleep, sunshine, and water; and proper hand washing are essential, but I also rely on a handful of tonic herbs to keep us healthy and resilient.
When it comes to fighting infections and warding off looming illnesses, antimicrobial herbs will be among your very best helpers. These remedies contain compounds that directly deter pathogenic bacteria, fungi, viruses, and protozoans.
Last winter, I had the pleasure of visiting the Kauai Farmacy Gardens with my family on a visit to Kauai, affectionately known as the Hawaiian “Garden Island.” I was intrigued by their thriving tropical farm-to-apothecary business model and was eager to meet the plants and people involved. Doug Wolkon, one of the co-founders of the gardens, generously spent an afternoon with us, showing us around the plantings and apothecary.
We’ve been growing medicinal herbs for decades, and their return to the garden each spring is still one of the season’s great joys. As early as January, cold-hardy herbs like motherwort and lemon balm will start showing off new green leaves—followed shortly by purple-tinged anise hyssop, plush stinging nettles, and fragrant peppermint. Although it will be many more weeks before harvesting commences, their presence is a grand and hopeful sign of warmer days to come.
Each fall, all across North America, goldenrod lights up meadows and fields with a refreshing blend of ruggedness and jubilation. In addition to the sunshine it lends to the landscape, its flowers attract native pollinators and beneficial insects. Goldenrod’s piney-tasting leaves and flowers are an important medicinal remedy for the urinary, digestive, and respiratory systems. The goldenrod tribe encompasses one hundred species of late-blooming, knee- or hip-high herbaceous perennials.
Before we jump into the best herbs for small spaces, let’s talk about how you can turn your garden into a productive medicinal paradise! Not everyone has a field or lawn they are able to transform into their dream herb garden. If you only have a patio or a balcony or tend a limited outdoor space, here are some tips to help you reap the most from your plantings.