Book Review: Edible & Medicinal Plants of Canada

edible and medicinal plants of canadaI don’t like writing bad reviews, but I feel compelled to after having read a significant portion of this book because a novice forager could seriously hurt him/herself going by its information. It’s actually been sitting in my library for a couple years, but I recently took it out on an all day hiking trip with the hope of identifying some plants that are new to me.  I paused at a brook at noon to have lunch and pulled out the book to read while I relaxed, and ended up staying there for a good couple hours going further and further into the book, increasingly dismayed and alarmed by the level of ineptitude portrayed in the pages.

Approach this book with great caution. It is inadequately illustrated to positively confirm many of the species it covers, and the information is at times doubtful, sometimes potentially harmful.

Most foraging books leave the reader wanting when it comes to illustrations, but this book is especially bad for it. Oh, it has any number of beautiful photos that could deceive a reader into thinking it’s very thorough, but the photos are often inadequate to confirm plant ID. This makes it very hard for a user to safely and positively identify various plants. In particular, it neglects silhouettes of plant structure, as well as sufficient illustration of root and leaf structure. The book relies heavily, with a few exceptions, on imagery of blossoms and fruit for identification purposes. This makes it almost useless for the many plants that are best harvested long before blooming and fruiting. Further, it often describes varieties of plants without illustrating them at all.

Most foraging books also have a few errors–generally minor mistakes that are forgivable given how much there is to know–but this book has so many errors in so many areas that I am greatly dubious of it. As an example, it expounds that the entire burdock plant is an edible vegetable. This is true, so long as you do not mind the almost unbearable bitterness of every part but the tuber. Of the viper’s bugloss, it says the leaves are edible if cut finely. Take a look at the fine, sharp, numerous spines under a bugloss leaf and ask yourself if you would want to eat it, finely cut or not. It states that cattails can be eaten raw, which is true only if you don’t mind eating the toxin, oxalic acid, which is easily destroyed by heat (hence, why one must cook cattail greens).

The errors and suspect information are so profuse that this book has the feel of the slough of poor copycat books that followed Gibbons’ highly knowledgeable Stalking the Wild Asparagus back in the 60s, 70s and 80s. It has the feel of a text that was pushed out by writers who didn’t really understand foraging and were instead simply collating data from various sources with the aim of producing a book that the publisher planned to sell on the basis of it’s attractive photography. This is shown time and time again in the book as the authors describe plants as edible then provide warnings below the descriptions that some persons have suffered poisoning from those very plants. Having been through a great deal of this book, it provides no indication that I can find that the authors actually eat or use the plants they write about.

This book can be regarded as a basic field guide with some potentially useful information and images, but the reader should substantiate every element in the book with validated sources before consuming anything it recommends. Better, only learn from foragers who actually use what they recommend. You may profoundly regret not doing so if you are new to foraging.

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