Photograph by NATE BURROWS
The word forage might call to mind the image of an adventurer with a harvesting basket strapped to her back, wandering through wild fields and forests. But urban farmer, forager, mushroom cultivator, and poet Indy Srinath encourages everyone to see that foraging and gardening can be done in virtually any environment, including the busy city of Los Angeles, which she currently calls home.
Srinath has been passionate about foraging since she attended herbalism school nearly a decade ago. While studying plant identification, she began to pay attention to the local fungi and became distracted from the plants she set out to study. “I was drawn to mushrooms because of their ephemeral nature,” she says. “One day they were abundant in vibrant luminosity, and the next day, when I returned to the same spot, they were magically transformed and transferred back to the earth.” While she was able to learn how to cultivate mushrooms with relative ease on the seven-acre farm in Western North Carolina where she was living at the time, she also now uses that knowledge and her farming and harvesting skills to help the houseless population of downtown L.A.
The garden she manages is located in an area known as Skid Row, known for its unhoused population, and there she teaches people how to grow and use organic herbs and vegetables. “I manage a magical rooftop garden space filled with hummingbirds, chrysanthemums, honeybees, poppy flowers, oyster mushrooms, heirloom tomatoes, rich soil, mycelium networks, sage bushes, and sweet potato vines,” she says. “The community that I work with is incredibly underserved. Most of the folks I know do not live in traditional housing, but for them this area is home. Tents are home, the sidewalk is home, other people are home, food is home, and for some the garden is home.”
Food is memory as well for many of the people Srinath works with in her urban garden. “So many of the folks that come into the garden have beautifully rich stories around food—memories of snapping peas with their grandmother, growing squash in their backyard as a kid, or climbing an apple tree every day after school. For me, this is a beautiful introduction to gardening—simply having a relationship with food and a willingness to get your hands dirty is all an individual needs to become a food grower. I’ve learned that everybody is a gardener. Growing food is a mindset and not a skill set.”
Foraging is also a mindset, and one that doesn’t require a wilderness to succeed. Srinath has discovered that mushrooms especially can be successfully foraged in a city environment. She has found many mushroom species that grow in urban environments, such as oyster mushrooms and morel mushrooms.
However, she advises that the intrepid urban forager should take precautions: Make sure you’re foraging in areas that are more than fifteen feet from traffic and that the area is not sprayed or treated with herbicides or pesticides. And of course, also be sure you have permission to pick food from the place you’re exploring. Srinath always brings a friend with her to help with any unsavory interactions from environmental conditions or interpersonal issues. She also brings a camera with her to document everything just in case.
When Srinath forages, especially when she’s able to do so in the woods, she sometimes uses luck magic and intuition, as when she had a lucky find of lobster mushrooms. “I was wandering aimlessly in the forest after a particularly difficult day at work and decided to just keep following little fungus signs. So whenever I saw something that intrigued me, I would walk toward it and kept changing my path through the woods to follow little mushrooms and mosses that I was interested in.” Following her instincts led her to a magical abundant find, and she was able to return and harvest these lobster mushrooms for more than three years.
Srinath has also been a part of many discussions and conversations regarding the idea of ethnobotany, “the study of bioregional plants and their practical uses through the traditional knowledge of local, indigenous culture and people.” She emphasizes the importance of recognizing that the plant knowledge and agricultural knowledge passed on by oral tradition in the Black and brown communities are largely uncredited. “It is imperative to honor the Black, brown, and indigenous folks that laid foundation for our current understanding of plant and fungi edibility and usefulness. We have an opportunity to amplify the voices of our Black and brown ancestors, who are often uncredited, overlooked, disenfranchised, or exploited in these practices. The lives and life works of Black folks matter.”
This respect informs Srinath’s work with her local community and is something she remembers every time she puts her hands into the soil to plant or forage. She is also currently running a Kickstarter to create her own Black-owned and Black-led urban farm in Los Angeles. “Working with the earth and communing with the land is enchanting to me,” she says. “I love drying herbs that I grow to use as tea, incense, and medicine. I love spending time growing food, not just for humans but for pollinators and birds as well. I think that by growing food, I stay in a mindset of enchantment.”
Learn more about Indy Srinath’s work on Instagram @indyofficinalis.
Follow Grace Nuth on Instagram @gracesidhe.