Following in the footsteps of Euell Gibbons, Sam Thayer has inspired a generation to get outside and find wild food delicacies waiting beyond the back door. His first book, The Forager’s Harvest, was a hands-on guide to the bounty around us, with an emphasis on those species found near his midwestern home. This April Thayer published his second volume, Nature’s Garden, a guide that is at once more wide-ranging and yet also focused in a way that the average how-to book is not.
In an introductory section called simply “The Purpose of This Book” Thayer lays out his vision: This is not a guide for the armchair enthusiast, he writes, it is “a guide to actually foraging.” (Italics his.) Rather than bombard the novice with countless species and terse descriptions, he compiles a sort of Forager’s Hall of Fame, with something to please everyone, from beginners to experts and home cooks to chefs. Thus, while there are only 41 plants discussed in Nature’s Garden, these are all winners, and each one receives detailed treatment, including multiple color photos of wild plants at various stages in their life cycles; lengthy descriptions of identification, habitat and range, harvest and preparation; and in some cases history, lore, and ecology.
The acorn chapter, for instance, gets no fewer than 50 pages devoted to this important though tricky food source, with acorns broken out by individual species and helpful notes about separating the good from the bad and the many ways of processing. The section also illustrates the author’s no-nonsense approach. Of the “sweet acorn” myth—that is, the El Dorado-like idea of an acorn that doesn’t require leaching to remove bitter tannins—Thayer writes: “Dream of these tannin-free acorns if you wish, hope if you like, but don’t waste your time looking for them. No acorn myth has bred more disillusionment.”
For those wondering whether such a focused and personal treatment will work for their own region, Thayer includes a relevance chart by U.S. state and Canadian province. My own state of Washington is on the low end of the spectrum, with 76 percent applicability; at the other end, with 95 percent or higher, are Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and the Canadian province of Ontario. Clearly his expertise is concentrated in the Midwest and East Coast, but those of us from the western states won’t be disappointed. Even the desert state of Nevada is represented by half the entries.
Some well-known wild foods are here: hazelnut, prickly pear, huckleberry, wild strawberry, dandelion, and others. Of greater interest are those less publicized foods that beginning foragers want to know more about: amaranth, garlic mustard, Jerusalem-artichoke, sow-thistle, salsify, and many more.
Nature buffs, would-be foragers, and even experienced wild foods aficionados should all have a copy of Nature’s Garden in their libraries—or better yet—at the ready. Stock market investors might see it as a hedge too.