While it is possible that a reference book could help in a pinch to find a few edible plants to use to supplement one's diet...to expect that a person is to learn all they need to know from one book that is needed to sustain life...without a depth of experiences that are borne over many seasons of working with many plants is unrealistic.
It's kind of like asking..."If the day comes that I have an opportunity to dance on broadway...how can I become a professional dancer in one weekend?" It is also like people that store garden seed for doomsday gardening...but don't currently garden...or purchase all of their plants large and healthy from a nursery. The comfort that comes with being truly self-reliant with foraging as well as in most preparedness endeavors comes with the knowledge that comes from practice.
I own a library of foraging books...and when I am learning about a plant...I learn bits and pieces of a puzzle from many of them. Some of the books have great harvesting info...but lame plant identification ...or they list off 100+ plants...but only a handful will be available in your region...etc...etc. Trying to find one book that shows you all stages of the plants development...explains the qualities of a plant good for harvesting...and that doesn't leave out other important details is hard to find. None really have been a complete resource...all by themselves. I end up going on the internet and look up photos on calflora...or see if there are videos on youtube...etc...etc... Then I observe the plant through the seasons to know what it looks like at all stages of development. Some plants you want to eat when it is a tiny shoot...not when it is in full bloom like it shows in so many of the photos!
But the question arises..."Isn't there a book that contains at least the info for a handful of plants that one could learn without looking to other sources?" Well...there are two that I can think of...and they are both written by Samuel Thayer.
His first book "The Foragers Harvest" is worth purchasing even if only a select amount of the plants that he covers are to be found where you live. He is not an armchair forager. Not someone regurgitating what another author has written. He is telling you hands on how HE works with each plant. The photographs are crisp...the quality of the materials of the book are superb...the descriptions are complete. He provides a glossary...information on botanical terminology...really a complete reference.
His new book is a dream come true! It is called "Natures Garden" and it is like a continuation of his first book. This is book is 512 pages long vs. "The Foragers Harvest" which is 360 pages. It has more plant lessons than "The Foragers Harvest" that are applicable to Western foragers. "Natures Garden" is worth buying if just for his section on Acorn processing!
So...if you only had two foraging books to rely on...I'd choose for you "Nature's Garden"...followed by "The Foragers Harvest". After that...I would point you to Steve Brills book that has wonderfully correct botanical drawings and great humored info...or Christopher Nyerges book that has great info especially with regards to nutritional values...but lame photos.
"Natures Garden" is available for pre-order from Amazon at the link above...or directly from Samuel Thayer. He will even sign the book if you buy it from him!
"Tending the Wild" by M. Kat Andersen
One of the initial things that drew me to foraging was the concept of "Reaping where I did not sow". After spending so much time prepping soil for planting...sowing...weeding...etc...at my home garden foraging was bound to be inviting! I saw with my naive eyes that the world of the Native Americans must be one of simply going around and filling up their "shopping baskets" with the bounties of nature. I mean...that is what we were taught in school right?! That the Native Americans were "Hunters and gatherers"!?
While they did hunt...and they did gather...they also were "Tending the wild". This book extensively documents the practices of burning...weeding...coppicing...pruning...sowing...etc...that made the State of CA the abundant place that it was when the white man came. These actions ensured that successive harvests would produce higher yields and superior quality. Native California was managed just like a modern farmer would manage a crop in rows...only their crop was "wild" to the untrained eye. Hillsides of edible clover...large stands of evenly spaced oaks...fields of cereal grains. They truly shaped the landscape of California into what it was...and we still are benefactors of their work to the extent that it hasn't been sullied.
This book also serves as a stinging rebuke to those "conservationists" who believe that the best kind of nature is nature that is untouched. Management practices of the Native Americans such as burning increased crop yields...abated insects and disease...prevented larger fires...cleared brush...etc. Man's hand can actually accentuate the positive by helping along processes that lead to a desired result. For example...the author writes extensively about Dichelostemma capitatum or "Blue Dicks" or "Brodiaea".
Here is a video of a person who has some foraging videos on youtube (many of which I have enjoyed). In this video he recommends eating the stem and flower of Brodiaea...but leaving the corm. He leaves the corm saying that it is the part that is "sustainable"...saying "It helps the plant to survive". While it is true that the plant will continue to live if you leave the corm in the ground...if he were to dig it up...he would find that there would be more plants to harvest in successive years! The corms have tiny "cormlets" that detach and plant themselves when you dig them up! It is this practice of not disturbing various plants that has led to their dwindling numbers and even extinction!
The book kind of felt like a fleshed out mini-version of Moerman's "Native American Ethnobotany". Where Moerman would tell you that a certain species of plant was used for food in a short blurb....this book tells you about how it was harvested...propagated...stored...etc. Many of this information comes by way of quotes from Native people telling their stories. The author also uses the botanical names to avoid confusion which is greatly appreciated.
I recommend it to all people who are interested in foraging...as it reminds us that we must give thought for the future of the plants we collect. It reminds us that we are in "Natures Garden"...a garden that will produce every year...if we don't kill the golden goose. I think that although so many of the species of plants discussed in the book are endemic to California...that it also will have direct applicability to similar species found in other states and is therefore still worthy of reading if you do not live in CA.
This book is a treasure. I am in awe of the knowledge of the Native American people. While much of the ethnobotanical information of the US has been lost...it is wonderful that M. Kat Andersen gave a chunk of her life to record a piece of it.
Cover Your Paperback Books
I checked out the paperback copy of "Tending the Wild" from the library. It was obviously the first time the book had been read...as the binding practically creaked when I opened it. By the time I finished the book...the edges were bending up and looking worn. If this had been my own book...this never would have happened. Right after I purchase a book...new or used...before I start to read...I will cover the book with laminate. I purchase the laminate in a 12" roll from Highsmith which is a library supply place. This makes a paperback book...more like a glossy hardback book. They will last a lot longer and stay nice just by taking a short time to give the book some TLC. It's easy to do and takes me probably 5 minutes to cover one book.
I'm unsure if this is the same brand I purchased before...as one roll lasts FOREVER and I have not finished the one roll I have purchased...but the 12" one on this page should be a good choice for most paperbacks. Here are instructions on how to cover a book with laminate.