Chestnut Herbal School

The Best Regional Books for Plant Identification and Foraging Wild Foods and Herbs

Compiled by Meghan Gemma and Sarah Sorci with Juliet Blankespoor
Photography by Juliet Blankespoor

The following article is a sneak peek into our 375-hour Online Foraging Course: Edible and Medicinal Wild Herbs. This program is THE most comprehensive online course on the topic! The printable manual is 600 pages long and filled with loads of easy-to-follow recipes, herbal medicinal uses, and gorgeous close-up photos for plant identification. In fact, most of our plant profiles contain more detail than you’ll find in any book on wild foods and herbs.

Throughout the course, you’ll befriend the most common edible and medicinal wayside plants, including dandelion, stinging nettles, violet, yarrow, burdock, rose, goldenrod, and many more. Plus, you’ll receive the foundational ground rules of foraging safety and ethics, and then dive deep into botany and plant identification. Before you know it, you’ll have the skills and confidence to safely identify and harvest wild plants.

Registration for this online course will reopen in 2022.

 

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Juliet Blankespoor's study, including her "top shelf" books

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.

The books we’ve featured are fairly specific; they dial in on bioregions throughout North America and are tailored to help you safely identify plants and forage wild food and medicine right where you live. We’ve also added sections for Britain, Europe, and Australia!

As a companion to this list, please check out The Best Books on Foraging Wild Foods and Herbs, which gives you the lowdown on our favorite general foraging books (which pertain to most of temperate North America and Eurasia). We also highly recommend reading our article Sustainably Foraging for Wild Edibles and Herbs.

And if all this merely whets your appetite, come join us for our Online Foraging Course: Edible and Medicinal Wild Herbs. We’ll give you all the tools you need to explore plant identification, wild food and medicine foraging, and the herbal uses of the most abundant and healing wild plants of the temperate world. Plus, we’ll share our very favorite culinary and medicinal recipes. On the other hand, if a more comprehensive course on DIY herbalism is up your alley, take a peek at our Online Herbal Immersion.

In good conscience, we simply couldn’t list many popular wild food guides in this article, mostly because they don’t emphasize poisonous look-alikes in their plant descriptions, which could mean fatal consequences for foragers using those books. If you think there’s a book that deserves to be mentioned but isn’t, please let us know—we’ll continue expanding this guide as new resources become available!

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I can't wait to really dive into this book!

Contents:

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ACCESSING BOOKS: We recommend purchasing from small and/or BIPOC-owned bookstores whenever possible. Here is one list of Black-owned bookstores, many of which offer an online store. Some books on this list may be more difficult to find and/or be more expensive, since they are offered by smaller publishing houses with smaller print runs. For tips on affordably accessing books, visit our Herbal Books Hub.

*Titles by BIPOC authors or co-authors (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) are written in purple.

*denotes Juliet’s personal favorites within each section

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General Botany Books

These references will help you dive deeper into botanical terms and plant families, and serve as companions (not replacements) to a good regional field guide. Understanding plant families—and how to identify them—is a huge first step for any forager or self-respecting plant nerd.

Books Our Botanists Use is a great place to start, as it’s an incredibly extensive list of field guides compiled by the USDA Forest Service, suitable for all regions of the United States.

*Botany in a Day by Thomas J. Elpel

The only botany book to explore plant families with a strong medicinal and edible focus.

Flowering Plant Families of the World by V. H. Heywood

A beautiful book for the coffee table or reference library, this hardcover classic is filled with gorgeous, scientifically accurate illustrations and range maps for over 500 plant families throughout the world. Make sure to purchase the 2007 edition.

Photographic Atlas of Botany and Guide to Plant Identification by James Castern

Easy to read, with detailed color photographs that illustrate plant family characteristics, this guide is perfect for those who are really excited about botany and plant identification. The book is spiral-bound and quite hefty, so it’s more of a desk reference than an actual field guide. Some of the plant family classifications are out of date, but the general botany photos are still applicable, as are the bulk of the plant family photographs and descriptions.

Plant Identification Terminology: An Illustrated Glossary by James Harris and Melinda Woolf Harris

An excellent reference for those studying botany or wanting to use technical keys in the field, this guide clearly illustrates nearly 2,000 botanical terms!

A Tour of the Flowering Plants by Priscilla Spears

Filled with high-quality color photographs, this is a wonderful reference for those who prefer visual learning. The author illustrates and explains over 100 flowering plant families and includes a botanical glossary to help the beginner get started.

Weeds of North America by Richard Dickinson and France Royer

Organized by plant family, and features more than 500 species. Each species receives a two-page spread with images and text identification keys. Species are arranged within family alphabetically by scientific name, and entries include vital information on seed viability and germination requirements.

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Usnea (Usnea sp.) harvest

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Regional Resources:
Field Guides, Foraging, and Ethnobotany

A good field guide is essential for identifying plants in the wild! Be sure to choose at least one—preferably a few—that is/are applicable to your area, and always purchase the most recent edition. This section also includes books about ethnobotany and uses of plants that are specific to particular regions. Some of these books cover the medicinal and/or edible uses of plants and some cover only identification. In summary, pay attention to the scope of the book and also the level. Some of these are advanced and won’t be helpful for the beginner or intermediate plant enthusiast; we make a note in these cases that the book is more technical. For international students, please research reputable field guides suitable for your region and share your recommendations with us!

Northwestern United States + British Columbia

*The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North by Beverley Gray

Part plant-identification guide, part food- and medicine-making manual, this book is a treasury of plants that grow throughout the north (and much of the temperate world). Excellent reading for beginners, experienced foragers, and anyone who loves herbs. Speaks to the heart and soul of wild food and herbal medicine. Features lots of photography and beautiful writing.

*Discovering Wild Plants: Alaska, Western Canada, the Northwest by Janice Schofield Eaton

Don’t let the title of this book put you off—it’s relevant to temperate climates around the world. And it’s a superb field guide. The book covers 147 wild plants, detailing their identification, range, traditional and contemporary uses, and medicinal properties. Each plant is accompanied by photographs and line drawings. The book is currently out of print, making used copies a bit more expensive than other field guides, but it’s so good that it still made our list!

*Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West by Michael Moore; one of several invaluable guides written by herbalist Michael Moore

This book covers plants ranging from Baja California to Alaska, featuring identification tips, medicinal uses, preparation, and contraindications for each herb—all infused with Moore’s characteristic wit and humor. Simple line drawings, maps, and some color photos are included throughout.

*Northwest Trees: Identifying and Understanding the Region’s Native Trees by Stephen Arno

An easy-to-use guide with beautiful illustrations and species descriptions. Arno includes writings about the traditional uses of trees and ecology, as well as detailed descriptions that invite the reader to slow down and take in each tree deeply. Highly recommended. This makes a good companion to a more traditional field identification guide for trees. Be sure to get the 30th-anniversary deluxe edition.

*Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and Alaska by Jim Pojar and Andrew MacKinnon

This user-friendly field guide features nearly 800 species of plants commonly found along the Pacific coast—from Oregon to Alaska—including trees, shrubs, wildflowers, aquatic plants, grasses, ferns, mosses, and lichens. The book encompasses the entire coastal region, from shoreline to alpine, and the western Cascades. Perfect for the beginner and experienced forager.

*Trees and Shrubs of the Pacific Northwest by Mark Turner and Ellen Kuhlmann

This is Mark Turner’s companion guide to Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest. It covers 568 species of woody plants throughout Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Northern California with vivid color photographs, identifying characteristics, and range maps. This is an excellent book for beginners or those new to the region.

*Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest by Mark Turner and Phyllis Gustafson

This colorful guide describes and illustrates 1,220 plant species that are common to the Pacific Northwest—from southern British Columbia to northern California, from the coast to the mountains and high desert. Plants featured include natives, non-natives, perennials, annuals, and shrubs. Beautifully photographed, the book is small enough to carry in your backpack and is suitable for all experience levels.

Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 by Nancy Turner

Geared towards the ethnobotanist, these volumes are highly referenced, offering first-hand stories and accounts from Indigenous people of the northwest United States. Volume 1 offers a historical look at Indigenous practices and culture before colonization, including details about plant uses for food, medicine, and technology. Volume 2 offers more information about cultivation, harvest, and use of plants, and also explores community systems to preserve resources, nurture economic ties with other groups despite cultural differences, and support a healthy community overall. Expensive and not for the casual student.

The Jepson Manual: Vascular Plants of California, Second Edition edited by Bruce Baldwin et al

This is a hefty hardcover tome that covers both native and naturalized vascular plants throughout California. This is a technical key best suited to seasoned botanists; IT IS NOT A BEGINNER GUIDE! Unlike many technical keys, however, it features illustrations, and a new chapter on the vegetative history of California is included.

Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast: A Comprehensive Guide to the Fungi of Coastal Northern California by Noah Siegel and Christian Schwarz

A gorgeous and trustworthy guide to the mushrooms of coastal California, from Monterey County to the Oregon border. Splendid photographs and thorough information on identification, edibility, and toxicity. Easy enough for beginners, detailed enough for experienced mushroom hunters.

Pacific Seaweeds: A Guide to Common Seaweeds of the West Coast by Louis Druehl and Bridgette Clarkston

A beautiful guide to Pacific seaweeds. It features color photos, nutritional information, and accessible recipes—like seaweed kimchi and kelp chips. A lightweight book perfect for foraging trips to the coast.

“Plants in Language and Classification Among BC First Nations” by Nancy J. Turner, Carla Burton, and Jan van Eijk

Article available for free courtesy of Semantic Scholar. This article explores systems of naming and categorizing plants among Indigenous languages and cultures of British Columbia. Written from an academic perspective.

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Field guides and foraging books for the Pacific Northwest and coastal British Columbia

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Regional California Guides

Pay attention to the regions listed in the field guides, as many of these books won’t be applicable to the whole state. Folks in coastal areas of Northern California will want to look at the books for the Pacific Northwest. Those living in the desert region of southeastern California will want to consult the Southwestern United States section.

*Ethnobotany Project: Contemporary Uses of Native Plants | Southern California and Northern Baja California by Rose Ramirez and Deborah Small

Contributors share contemporary Indigenous uses of native plants in Southern California and northern Baja California. Includes edible and medicinal uses, plus information about gathering practices. Features beautiful full-page photographs of Chumash people interacting with native plants.

After the First Full Moon in April: A Sourcebook of Herbal Medicine from a California Indian Elder by Bev Ortiz and Josephine Grant Peters

A collaboration between Indigenous plant expert Josephine Grant Peters (Karuk/ Shasta/ Abenaki) and ethnobotanist Bev Ortiz. This book documents Josephine and other community members’ management, harvest, preparation, and use of a range of local plants, plus the relationships that developed between Josephine and those she has worked with as a healer. Includes both medicinal and culinary plant uses.

Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California by Janice Timbrook

Intended for the “layperson,” this book offers a well-rounded understanding of Chumash culture as it relates to plants. Includes information about medicinal and culinary uses; making tools, clothing, and utensils; religious practices; and more. Includes lovely watercolor art.

The Jepson Desert Manual: Vascular Plants of Southeastern California by Margriet Wetherwax

A comprehensive field guide focused exclusively on native and naturalized vascular plants of California’s southeastern deserts, including the Mojave Desert, Sonoran Desert, and southern Great Basin (including the White Mountains). This is a technical key, NOT A BEGINNER GUIDE!

The Jepson Manual: Vascular Plants of California, Second Edition edited by Bruce Baldwin et al

This is a hefty hardcover tome that covers both native and naturalized vascular plants throughout California. This is a technical key best suited to seasoned botanists; IT IS NOT A BEGINNER GUIDE! Unlike many technical keys, however, it features illustrations, and a new chapter on the vegetative history of California is included.

Kumeyaay Ethnobotany: Shared Heritage of the Californias by Michael Wilken-Robertson

Offers detailed description of the relationships between the Kumeyaay people and 47 plants they rely on in the Baja California and Southern California region. Includes medicinal, culinary, artistic, technological, and sacred uses of local plants, plus hundreds of photographs.

The New Wildcrafted Cuisine by Pascal Baudar

This is a truly groundbreaking book, with delectable imagery and recipes that push the edge of even wild cuisine (edible insects, for example). In this light, we recommend this book for the curious and adventuresome cook, or for anyone wanting to take their wild food dishes to the next level. More cookbook than field guide, you’ll find a wealth of wild recipes arranged by foraging season. Most plants in the book can be found throughout the temperate world, but others are found only in Southern California and Mediterranean climates. This is a gorgeous book sure to spice up wild food conversation.

 Sierra Nevada Wildflowers: Including Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks by Karen Wiese

A handy pocket guide meant to be used while plants are in flower. This is an accessible book for the novice botanist, and features easy-to-read descriptions and color photos, plus notes on range and bloom season.

Trees and Shrubs of Nevada and Placer Counties, California by the Redbud Chapter of the California Native Plant Society

The arboreal companion to Wildflowers of Nevada and Placer Counties (see below). Equally charming.

Wildflowers of the Eastern Sierra and Adjoining Mojave Desert and Great Basin by Laird Blackwell

An easy-to-use pocket guide for identifying regional flowers and shrubs. Each plant description is accompanied by color photos and information on habitat, bloom season, and viewing locations.

Wildflowers of Nevada and Placer Counties by the Redbud Chapter of the California Native Plant Society

A lovely little guide brimming with photos, brief ID descriptions, and plenty of interesting comments on ecological role. Edibility is briefly mentioned where applicable.
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Juliet's library

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Southwestern United States

*Eat Mesquite and More: A Cookbook for Sonoran Desert Foods and Living by Desert Harvesters

A highly collaborative and practical book that includes sustainable and urban foraging information, plus over 170 recipes. Numerous contributors include foragers and chefs well-acquainted with the region.

*Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West: A Guide to Identifying, Preparing, and Using Traditional Medicinal Plants Found in the Deserts and Canyons of the West and Southwest by Michael Moore

A must-have guide for any herbalist or wild forager of the Southwest. Arranged alphabetically, the book features the medicinal plants of the region as well as simple line drawings and a centerfold of color photos. Excellent for both beginners and pros; features a therapeutic use index and a glossary to explain botanical and medical terminology.

*Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West (revised and expanded edition) by Michael Moore

One of the very best medicinal field guides for the region, this guide is highly relevant to New Mexico, Arizona, west Texas, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and California. Moore writes with his characteristic dry humor but is completely thorough as he discusses identification, range, medicinal use, preparation, and contraindications for each herb. The book features line drawings and a centerfold of color photographs and is light enough to easily carry into the field.

*Southwest Foraging: 117 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Barrel Cactus to Wild Oregano by John Slattery

Highly recommended for southwestern foragers. This guide is wonderfully accessible to all skill levels and features a range of nourishing edible plants, from wild greens to cacti. The book is filled with full-color photographs and detailed information on identification, harvesting, and preparation.

*Trees and Shrubs of New Mexico, Revised and Expanded by Jack L. Carter

Designed for use by both laypersons and plant scientists, this book includes illustrations, descriptions, distribution maps, and dichotomous keys for more than 430 native, naturalized, and cultivated trees, shrubs, and woody vines that are known to occur in New Mexico. A pictorial glossary provides much of the basic information needed to find the plants in question.

Common Southwestern Native Plants: An Identification Guide by Jack L. Carter, Martha Carter, and Donna Stevens

An easy to-use field guide with detailed line drawings and color photos that features both woody and herbaceous flowering plants. This book lives up to its name, introducing the most common species and not intended to be thorough in its scope.

Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants by Carolyn Niethammer

A flavorful cookbook and field guide that features hand-drawn illustrations, identification tips, harvesting instructions, and 150 southwestern recipes. Ideal for foragers and cooks of all skill levels.

Desert Wildflowers of North America by Ronald Taylor

A beautifully photographed pocket guide featuring range maps, descriptions, and commentary on the desert ecosystem. Geared toward amateur botanists.

Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert by Wendy Hodgson

A beautiful and well-researched hardcover book featuring the traditional uses of nearly 540 edible plants. Includes wonderful black-and-white photos and gorgeous drawings throughout. More ethnobotanical in scope and less how-to guide. Best accompanied by a field guide.

Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande by L.S.M. Curtin. Revised and edited by Michael Moore

Features traditional uses of medicinal plants, with knowledge gleaned from both Spanish curanderas and Indigenous people of the American Southwest. In this updated edition, Moore adds his perspective on these plants’ uses.

The Jepson Desert Manual: Vascular Plants of Southeastern California by Margriet Wetherwax

A comprehensive field guide focused exclusively on native and naturalized vascular plants of California’s southeastern deserts, including the Mojave Desert, Sonoran Desert, and southern Great Basin (including the White Mountains). This is a technical key, NOT A BEGINNER GUIDE!

Medicinal Plants of the American Southwest by Charles Kane

Like Michael Moore’s books, this guide blends herbal materia medica with plant identification, making it very handy for medicinal foragers. Along with botanical descriptions and suggestions for collection and preparation, Kane shares medicinal indications, herbal precautions, and dosages. There is a centerfold of color photos.

Plants of Arizona by Anne Orth Epple

The only complete guide to the rich and unique flora of Arizona, featuring more than 900 full-color photographs and detailed descriptions of each plant. Also applicable to much of New Mexico. Be sure to get the latest edition, published in 2012.

The Prickly Pear Cookbook by Carolyn Niethammer

A delightful cookbook devoted to one of the most treasured native foods of the Americas. Learn how to prep and cook the abundant prickly pear cactus.

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Sub-Regional Southwestern Field Guides

These are applicable to smaller regions within the southwest and are not applicable to the larger region of the American Southwest.

A Guide to Plants of the Northern Chihuahuan Desert by Carolyn Dodson

This is a great book for beginning botanists or visitors exploring the region. Filled with photos, line drawings, and brief descriptions, it occasionally references edible and medicinal uses along with notes on toxicity.

Mojave Desert Wildflowers by Jon Mark Stewart

Most notable for its gorgeous photos, this is a very small guide that’s easy to tuck in your daypack. A handy reference for identifying desert wildflowers in bloom.

Sonoran Desert Wildflowers by Richard Spellenberg

A light and handy guide to desert wildflowers (best used when plants are in bloom). Spellenberg shares brief plant descriptions, comments on ecological roles, and wee mentions on edible uses. Lovely photos throughout.

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The extensive library at Mountain Gardens in Celo, NC

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Western North America

*Western Trees by George and Olivia Petrides

A pocket field guide in the Peterson Field Guides tradition, with color drawings, photos, range maps, and identifying descriptions. Occasional, brief references to Indigenous uses. One of the best Peterson Field Guides on plants.

Trees of Western North America: Princeton Field Guides by Richard Spellenberg, Christopher Earle, and Gil Nelson

A comprehensive and illustrated guide that covers 630 species of native and naturalized trees in the western United States and Canada as far east as the Great Plains. Features color illustrations and range maps. Small enough to put in your backpack.

Weeds of the West, Revised Edition published by the University of Wyoming with multiple authors

A pictorial and descriptive identification guide for wild western weeds that shows the plants throughout their life cycle. A very useful reference, but a bit “down” on weeds in general—talks about spraying, eradicating, etc.

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I can't find the catnip entry in the darned index!

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Rocky Mountain North America

*The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North by Beverley Gray

Part plant-identification guide, part food- and medicine-making manual, this book is a treasury of plants that grow throughout the north (and much of the temperate world). Excellent reading for beginners, experienced foragers, and anyone who loves herbs. Speaks to the heart and soul of wild food and herbal medicine. Features lots of photography and beautiful writing, especially relevant to the northern Rockies.

*Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West (the revised and expanded edition) by Michael Moore

One of the very best medicinal field guides for the region—highly relevant to New Mexico, Arizona, west Texas, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and California. Moore’s entertaining and completely thorough writing discusses identification, range, medicinal use, preparation, and contraindications for each herb. The book features line drawings and a centerfold of color photographs, and it’s light enough to carry into the field.

*Plants of the Rocky Mountains: Lone Pine Field Guide by Linda Kershaw, Andy MacKinnon, and Jim Pojar

Over 1,300 species of trees, shrubs, wildflowers, grasses, ferns, mosses, and lichens are described and illustrated. The authors include notes on origin of name, ecology, native uses, edibility, and similar species. The book also features color-coded sections to allow for quick reference. Perfect for all skill levels.

*Wild About Wildflowers: Extreme Botanizing in Crested Butte, Wildflower Capital of Colorado by Katherine Darrow

Applicable to the central and southern Rockies, filled with beautiful photos, identification tips, folklore, ecology, and occasional references to edible and medicinal uses. A useful pocket guide organized by plant family.

Handbook of Rocky Mountain Plants by Ruth Ashton Nelson

This book comprises fairly technical keys for wildflower identification and includes over 350 black-and-white illustrations. Small enough to take into the field; recommended for more experienced botanists and foragers.

A Taste of Heritage: Crow Indian Recipes and Herbal Medicines by Alma Hogan Snell

Drawing on the knowledge of generations of Crow Indian women—including her grandmother, Medicine Woman Pretty Shield—Alma Hogan Snell presents a guide to traditional lore, culinary uses, and healing properties of Crow Indian foods. Recipes include a range of wild foods dishes, teas, breads, and herbal remedies.

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Does this book taste as good as it looks?

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Midwestern North America + the Prairie States and Provinces

*Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb

Lawrence Newcomb’s system of wildflower identification is based on natural structural features that are easily visible to the untrained eye, enabling amateurs and experts alike to identify almost any wildflower quickly and accurately. This is a great first field guide for beginners and is small enough to fit in a very big pocket. More applicable to the eastern portion of the Midwest.

*Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley, and the Southern Appalachians by Dennis Horn and Tavia Cathcart

An excellent color photo guide that is tailored to the layperson. This book includes a few botanical keys as well as some edible/herbal tidbits, a little ecology, and the etymology of plant names. More applicable to the eastern portion of the Midwest.

Aboriginal Plant Use in Canada’s Northwest Boreal Forest by Robin Marles

This book describes the traditional uses of more than 200 plants from Canada’s boreal forest in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. The information was collected from 29 communities in this region, with contributions from over 100 elders.

Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie: An Ethnobotanical Guide by Kelly Kindscher

A companion guide to Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie: An Ethnobotanical Guide (see below) that merges historical and modern knowledge of the wild food plants of the prairie.

Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie: An Ethnobotanical Guide by Kelly Kindscher

An interesting guide for those who enjoy plant history. It includes Native American uses, modern medicinal uses, cultivation, and identification characteristics. Black-and-white drawings and range maps accompany each plant. Includes common and traditional names.

Strength of the Earth: The Classic Guide to Ojibwe Uses of Native Plants by Frances Densmore

Details the uses of over 200 plants of the forest and prairie. Features many stories told by Ojibwe women and historical images. Densmore writes about harvesting wild plants for food, dyes, and other tools and materials, plus medicinal uses.

Trees of Eastern North America (A Princeton Field Guide) by Gil Nelson, Christopher Earle, and Richard Spellenberg

Illustrated and comprehensive, this field guide uses a simple botanical key. The book covers 825 species, including all the native and naturalized trees of the eastern United States and Canada as far west as the Great Plains, with mention of those species found only in tropical and subtropical Florida and northernmost Canada. Somewhat heavy, but small enough to tote into the field.

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Ruby and the Morel (Morchella esculenta)

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Northeastern United States + Southeastern Canada

*100 Edible Mushrooms by Michael Kuo

Engaging to read, Kuo’s book features a hundred of the most common edible mushrooms and includes color photos, edibility ratings, descriptions, poisonous relatives and look-alikes, and a recipe section in the back of the book. Not exactly a pocket guide, but small enough to accompany you into the field. This is Juliet’s favorite book on wild mushrooms for beginners.

*Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb

Lawrence Newcomb’s system of wildflower identification is based on natural structural features that are easily visible to the untrained eye, enabling amateurs and experts alike to identify almost any wildflower quickly and accurately. This is a great first field guide for beginners and is small enough to fit in a very big pocket.

*Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do Is Ask: Anishinaabe Botanical Teachings by Mary Siisip Geniusz

Mary Siisip Geniusz writes about herbs from her years as an oshkaabewis, a traditionally trained apprentice. She apprenticed for decades with the late Anishinaabe medicine woman Keewaydinoquay Peschel, who asked Geniusz to write down her teachings and stories. Peschel was also the author of several books on Native American medicine and held degrees in anthropology, ethnobotany, and education. Geniusz uses storytelling to explain the uses, meaning, and history of plants. The book covers a wide range of plants and trees that can be used for food, simple medicines, and practical botanical tools. One of Juliet’s all-time favorite herbal books.

*The Smithsonian Guide to Seaside Plants of the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts, from Louisiana to Massachusetts, Exclusive of Lower Peninsular Florida by Wilbur and Marion Duncan

Includes nearly 1,000 species of wildflowers, trees, shrubs, grasses, rushes, and sedges. A tad outdated at this point—especially the plant family designations—but still a good primer on the most common plants of the Gulf and coasts.

 

Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms of New England and Eastern Canada by David Spahr

Filled with beautiful photos, this guide features easy-to-read descriptions of the Northeast’s most common medicinal and edible mushrooms. Includes harvesting and preparation suggestions.

 

Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada by Henry Gleason and Arthur Cronquist

A technical flora geared toward the experienced botanist or dedicated beginner. This is a technical key, NOT A BEGINNER GUIDE! Uniquely accompanied by a separate illustrated manual, which we recommend as a complementary resource: Illustrated Companion to Gleason and Cronquist’s Manual by Noel Holmgren.

 

Trees of Eastern North America (A Princeton Field Guide) by Gil Nelson, Christopher Earle, and Richard Spellenberg

Illustrated and comprehensive, this field guide uses a simple botanical key. The book covers 825 species, including all the native and naturalized trees of the eastern United States and Canada as far west as the Great Plains, with mention of those species found only in tropical and subtropical Florida and northernmost Canada. Somewhat heavy, but small enough to tote into the field.

 

Wildflowers of New England by Ted Elliman and the New England Wildflower Society

A field guide that features a straightforward key for identifying over 1,000 wildflowers throughout all six New England states. Each plant is accompanied by brief descriptions and a color photo. Pocket sized.

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Our favorite field guides and foraging books for the northeastern U.S. and adjacent Canadian regions

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Southeastern United States

*A Field Guide to the Trees and Shrubs of the Southern Appalachians by Robert E. Swanson

A detailed field guide compiled by the authors over a decade of hiking through the region. Covers 280 species of trees, shrubs, and woody vines in a range of ecosystems. Applicable to the Carolinas, Georgia, and eastern Tennessee (including Great Smoky Mountains National Park). Features illustrated keys that can be used in all four seasons.

*Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States by Alan Weakley

This is a technical flora (not for beginners; this is VERY technical) of the Southeast available for purchase as a print copy or free PDF from the UNC Herbarium. This is a weighty book and not easy to carry into the field.

*Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and Piedmont by Timothy Spira

A unique field guide! Rather than organizing plants by flower color or family characteristics, as most guidebooks do, botanist Tim Spira takes a holistic, ecological approach and organizes plants on the basis of their natural communities in the wild. His beautifully photographed book includes trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants. Not quite pocket-sized, but it’s still small enough to slip into your daypack.

*Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley, and the Southern Appalachians by Dennis Horn, David Duhl, and Tavia Cathcart

An excellent and comprehensive color photo guide that is tailored to the layperson. This book includes a few botanical keys as well as some edible/herbal tidbits, a little ecology, and the etymology of plant names. The book is most specific to Tennessee but is applicable to most southern and mid-Atlantic states.

Herbal Remedies of the Lumbee Indians by Arvis Locklear Boughman and Loretta O. Oxendine

This book records a range of Lumbee herbal remedies using plants from the coastal plain of North Carolina, including internal and topical uses. The latter section records stories and philosophies of Lumbee leaders, healers, and elders who were interviewed.

Medicinal Plants of the Southern Appalachians by Patricia Kyritsi Howell

An introductory medicinal guide written by a knowledgeable Southern herbalist. Herbal descriptions feature both traditional and modern medicinal uses, general ID, habitat descriptions, harvesting and preparation suggestions, dosage, and a sprinkling of recipes. No photos, and should be accompanied by a more detailed field guide for foraging.

Mushrooms of the Southeastern United States by Alan Bessette et al

A descriptive guide to the fungi of the Southeast, featuring ID characteristics, color photos, and comments on edibility. Simple enough to be used by any forager, this book has some extra features that make it appealing for more advanced mycologists (such as photos of microscope slides).

Mushrooms of West Virginia and the Central Appalachians by William Roody

A fantastic guide for Appalachian mushroom foragers. Includes detailed descriptions, notes on edibility, and vibrant color photographs. Small enough to be carried by hand in the field. Highly recommended for both novice mushroom hunters and experienced foragers.

Native Plants, Native Healing: Traditional Muskogee Way by Tis Mal Crow

Tis Mal Crow, of Cherokee and Hitchiti descent, has studied medicinal uses of plants and Native root doctoring techniques with elders since childhood. This book shares wisdom and practices that have been passed down over generations.

Plants of the Cherokee by William H. Banks

Though Banks is not Indigenous, he heavily references individuals he learned from on the Cherokee Reservation. Includes Cherokee names of plants, botanical illustrations, and Cherokee uses for more than 300 edible and medicinal plants.

Trees of the Southeastern United States by Wilbur and Marion Duncan

This field guide features excellent keys, species descriptions, ecological ranges, and color photos. It’s mid-level to technical and very comprehensive. The guide treats more than 300 species—every species known to occur in the region—from the coastal plain to the highest elevations. Included are trees native to the region as well as those introduced and are now reproducing.

Weeds of the South by Charles Bryson and Michael DeFelice

A guide to 400 of the most common weeds of the southern United States, featuring range maps, color photos, and handy descriptions of both seedlings and mature plants. Includes notes on toxicity and habitat, but there is no medicinal or edible information. The authors label weeds as “troublesome,” so don’t expect a plant-positive experience (but we still think it’s a handy guide!). More of a desk reference in size.

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The Southeast's finest botanical field guides

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Florida

*Florida Ethnobotany by Daniel Austin

Nearly 1,000 pages on the traditional and Indigenous uses of southeastern herbs—medicines, dye and fiber plants, foods, and mystical tools. Includes line drawings and a selection of color plates. On the expensive side, but this book is worth the splurge if you live in Florida and are into bioregional herbs!

*The Shrubs and Woody Vines of Florida: A Reference and Field Guide by Gil Nelson

A companion guide to the Trees of Florida, this book is written to help you identify plants in the field—you won’t find any edible or medicinal information. Easy to use, with simple line drawings and color photos. A bit on the technical side for absolute newcomers.

*The Trees of Florida: A Reference and Field Guide, Second Edition by Gil Nelson

A comprehensive guide to Florida’s amazing variety of tree species. There are nearly 600 color photographs and many drawings and range maps. And now included is a key to tree families that will help with field identification. A bit on the technical side for absolute newcomers.

Florida Wildflowers, a Comprehensive Guide by Walter Kingsley Taylor

A colorful field guide that discusses plant description, time of flowering, habitat, and Florida distribution. Often includes comments on related species, etymology, and even culinary, medicinal, and landscape uses. Features bright photography.

Florida Wildflowers in Their Natural Communities by Walter Kingsley Taylor

A unique field guide that features plants and their ecological communities. The book is filled with color photos and botanical descriptions that are accessible for both amateurs and more experienced botanists.

Florida’s Edible Wild Plants: A Guide to Collecting and Cooking by Peggy Sias Lantz

An easy-to-read guide to the edible plants of Florida, including their uses, basic identification traits, drawings, photographs, and recipes. A more detailed field guide should be used as a companion to properly ID plants.

Guide to the Vascular Plants of Florida, Third Edition by Richard Wunderlin and Bruce Hansen

This is a very technical key tailored to the experienced botanist; NOT recommended for beginners.

Healing Plants: Medicine of the Florida Seminole Indians by Alice M. Snow and Susan E. Stans

A record of Seminole knowledge and herbal practices as passed down to Alice Snow. Includes Seminole history, charts with plant names in Creek, Mikasuki, and English, and color photographs of featured plants.

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The best field guides for Florida

Britain and Europe

*The Big Book of Backyard Medicine: The Ultimate Guide to Home-Grown Herbal Remedies by Julie Bruton and Matthew Seal

Two longtime herbalists offer a practical, how-to book featuring 100 wild plants. Covers both medicinal and food uses of plants, plus a lot of historical tidbits. Includes hundreds of gorgeous color photographs.

*Field Guide to the Trees of Britain and Europe by Alan Birkett

Highly recommended guide for beginners. It contains a very user-friendly key with plants that are grouped by the shape and type of their leaves. It also has several separate keys organized by bud, flower, fruit, and bark, making it a useful guide throughout the seasons. As a bonus, this book details many of the popular ornamental trees found in Europe, in addition to those found in the wild. After a brief description of each plant, there is a “Quick ID” section that provides a snapshot of its major identifying features (useful for memorization!). Excellent photos throughout.

*The Herbalist’s Bible: John Parkinson's Lost Classic Rediscovered by Julie Bruton and Matthew Seal

A historical materia medica from 1640 is placed side-by-side with the authors’ modern take on featured plants and their medicinal uses. This unique work includes contemporary photographs alongside botanical drawings.

*Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland by Marjorie Blamey, Richard Fitter, and Alastair Fitter

A beautiful, user-friendly guide with gorgeous illustrations and distribution maps for each plant. Also contains a useful illustrated glossary of botanical terms. This is solely a field guide and doesn’t give any medicinal or edible uses. Highly recommended.

Edible Wild Plants and Herbs: A Compendium of Recipes and Remedies by Pamela Michael

Filled with tons of recipes and beautiful drawings, this book is a wonderful companion to your regional field guide. It provides historical and traditional uses for each plant, including many 18th and 19th century recipes. You’ll need a separate reference book of contraindications, as this book does include recipes for several plants that contain some toxicity (such as tansy and coltsfoot), without mentioning that they are potentially toxic. Nonetheless, if you’re excited to learn about the history of many common plants and find new ways to use them in the kitchen—and you’re willing to cross-reference for contraindications, this is a great book for your library.

Letting in the Wild Edges by Glennie Kindred

While not a field guide, this book is a soulful celebration of nature and the wildness in us all. The author takes us on a tour of the seasons through the eyes of a nature-lover, while providing seasonal inspiration for festivals, gardening tasks, and medicine making. The end of the book has a plant reference guide that lists the herbal and metaphysical uses for a variety of local plants. Does not provide information on identification.

New Flora of the British Isles, Third Edition by Clive Stage

A technical flora geared toward the experienced botanist or dedicated beginner. This is a technical key, NOT A BEGINNER GUIDE! This is a weighty book and not easy to carry into the field.

Trees: A Field Guide to the Trees of Britain and Northern Europe by John White, Jill White, and S. Max Walters

This useful guide is organized by leaf shape and arrangement, making it easy to use for the beginning botanist. Especially helpful are the distribution maps and the many clear photos to help with identification. Contains brief species descriptions of each plant, its habitat and ecology, and similar species.

Wild Fruit: A Field Guide to Britain and Europe by Alain and Marie-Jeanne Génevé

This unique field guide identifies plants by their fruit and lets you know if the fruit is edible, ornamental, or toxic. It details both common plants as well as some that are less familiar, with lovely photos of the plants both in flower and in fruit. Very user-friendly for beginning botanists; it even contains illustrated definitions of botanical terms, including diagrams and photos of various inflorescences and leaf shapes. Highly recommended.

Australia

Cronin’s Key Guide: Australian Trees by Leonard Cronin

Very simple and user-friendly key with species descriptions and distribution maps. Not comprehensive but a good first guide.

Cronin’s Key Guide: Australian Wildflowers, (fully revised edition) by Leonard Cronin

Same as above.

A Field Guide to the Native Edible Plants of New Zealand by Andrew Crowe

Likely the only book of its kind for this area, it contains a description of each plant and its traditional uses. There is no key for identification, so you need to have already identified the plants.

Field Guide to Useful Native Plants from Temperate Australia by J.M. Caton and R.J. Hardwick

Most applicable to southeastern Australia, this guide is organized by habitat, including plants of beaches, forests, grasslands, etc. Contains species descriptions, photos, and distribution maps, as well as traditional and modern uses for each plant.

Native Trees and Shrubs of Southeastern Australia by Leon Costermans

This guide covers New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia. A bit more advanced than some other guides, this is a great choice for the intermediate level botanist, with more ecological descriptions and more complex identification keys.

Weed Forager’s Handbook: A Guide to Edible and Medicinal Weeds in Australia by Adam Grubb and Annie Raser-Rowland

True to its name, this book details Australia’s edible and medicinal weeds, including common non-natives. Each plant description includes identifying characteristics, its distribution, similar species and look-alikes, as well as some information on how to use it for food and medicine. Likely the only book of its kind for this area.

Wild Food Plants of Australia by Tim Low

Provides a general introduction to the wild plants of Australia, including both native and non-native species. Brief species descriptions are given for each plant, including some traditional uses and their distribution.

Juliet Blankespoor

JULIET BLANKESPOOR founded the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine in 2007 and serves as the school’s primary instructor and Creative Director. She's been a professional plant-human matchmaker for close to three decades. Juliet caught the plant bug when she was nineteen and went on to earn a degree in Botany. She's owned just about every type of herbal business you can imagine: an herbal nursery, a medicinal products business, a clinical practice, and now, an herbal school.

These days, she channels her botanical obsession with her writing and photography in her online programs and here on her personal blog, Castanea. She's writing her first book: Cultivating Medicinal Herbs: Grow, Harvest, and Prepare Handcrafted Remedies from Your Home Garden. Juliet and her houseplants share a home with her family and herb books in Asheville, North Carolina.

Meghan Gemma

MEGHAN GEMMA is one of the Chestnut School’s primary instructors through her written lessons, and is the principal pollinator of the school’s social media community—sharing herbal and wild foods wisdom from the flowery heart of the school to an ever-wider field of herbalists, gardeners, healers, and plant lovers.

She has been in a steady relationship with the Chestnut School since 2010—as an intern and manager at the Chestnut Herb Nursery; as a plant-smitten student “back in the day” when the school’s programs were taught in the field; and later as a part the school’s woman-powered professional team. Meghan lives in the Ivy Creek watershed, just north of Asheville, North Carolina.

SARAH SORCI grew up near the Lake Erie shores of Buffalo, New York, and is happy to be back in her home region. With a degree in Environmental Studies, sustainability fuels Sarah’s love for local, homegrown herbalism. Sarah has been part of the Chestnut team since autumn 2019, and she offers local classes through her business, Sweet Flag Herbs. Sarah loves connecting with the WNY herbal community as an Herbalists Without Borders chapter co-coordinator. She is also jazzed about her new writing project, A Nourishing Harvest, where she explores topics that support the safe, toxin-informed harvest of food and medicine.

Interested in becoming a contributor?

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10 thoughts on “The Best Regional Books for Plant Identification and Foraging Wild Foods and Herbs

  1. This is a wonderfully thoughtful and comprehensive list!

    Timber Press has a series of bioregional field guides that you might like to include. I think they are wonderful, and not just because I’m one of the authors. 😉 (Northeast Medicinal Plants: Identify, Harvest, and Use 111 Wild Herbs for Health and Wellness). The Pacific Northwest guide by Scott Kloos is especially terrific!

  2. Caryn Talbot Throop says:

    Please review Briana Wiles’s two books, Mountain States Foraging (published several years ago) and Mountain States Medicinal Plants (published 2018). I find them both to be excellent, particularly the medicinal volume.

  3. Great list! I’d like to add for the northeast the 2-volume Ancestral Plants books by Arthur Haines. Really fabulous foraging and medicinal info by a hard-core foraging/survivalist who is also a top botanist in the northeast (having written our local flora with the New England Wildflower Society). Small press, the foraging books can be hard to get, but it’s well worth it. http://www.arthurhaines.com/books/

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