“The cemetery? You mean that cemetery flower can be eaten?” My sceptical exclamation is met with an enthusiastic nod by the rather dashing gentleman standing next to me. Pointing to what looks like a frangipani tree just in front of us, Chris Parry, the founder of Johor Green, a not for profit organisation focused on sustainability, explains that the Thais actually coat the flowers of the Plumeria plant in flour and fry them. “Like a tempura. In fact, you’ll be surprised that there are so many things around us that can actually be eaten. See that pretty yellow shrub there? That’s a Senna plant. The buds can be pickled or used in soups.”
The former New York-based graphic artist and textile designer with a passion for botany and gardening is the man behind this Edible Park that I’m visiting today and the recently-concluded Iskandar Puteri Green: Edible Festival in Iskandar Puteri, Johor, a collaboration between Medini Iskandar Malaysia and Parry’s Johor Green or JO Green, as he wants it to be known. A social enterprise with a concern for green issues, JO Green’s main objectives are to inform, inspire, connect and encourage more people to embrace a social path to a greener Johor.
Touted as the biggest green living event to be held in Iskandar Puteri, the idea behind the festival was simple — to inspire individuals to make sustainable choices so that positive outcomes can be attained with regards to health and the environment. “The garden can be a source of food, medicine, sanctuary and inspiration,” adds Parry, emphatically, before beckoning me to follow him on a tour of the 2ha Edible Park, an impressive edible landscape complete with a simple workshop studio, plant-based cafe, designed gardens and orchards.
The idea is to build a community that revolves around the subject of food. We want to show people that sustainable living isn’t impossible,” he says before stopping to point towards a piece of land just across the road from where we are that appears to be taking shape as a green sanctuary of sorts.
“That’s also part of the Medini Green Parks development, which comprises two components — the ‘edible’ and ‘heritage’ components. That one is the Heritage Forest. We’ll have local, native and regional flora that will offer a snapshot of Johor’s wilderness and biodiversity.” The Edible Park and Heritage Forest are two out of 46 parks in Medini, a 902ha integrated urban township development.
Smiling, he adds: “You know, it’s actually quite a Malay thing to forage for food. Think pucuk paku, ulam ulam... and now it’s become quite a hipster thing just like in New York!”
With the sky a canvas of sombre grey, signalling an impending storm, we hasten our steps to take in the rest of the lush urban Park. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to not stop every once in a while as my attention is piqued by the sight of certain plants and blooms. “Oooh is that chillies? But why is it that colour? And so stunted?” And with every query, I show myself up to be the typical urban dweller completely unfamiliar with the natural world.
But Parry is kind. Instead of admonishing me, he chortles with mirth before reassuring me: “Don’t worry. You tell me how many people can actually identify what they see growing around them these days?” Bending his tall frame down for a better look, he proceeds to patiently explain to me that the ‘stunted chilli with the funny colour’ isn’t actually a chilli but a type of eggplant. Right.
He chuckles good-naturedly at my embarrassed expression as we continue with our stroll. Coming to yet another halt, Parry explains that what we’re seeing is a complex layered landscape, which combines biodiversity, food and entertainment. Visions of Kedondong trees (Spondias dulcis), Belimbing (from the genus Averrhoa), mango and several varieties of basil accost my vision in a pleasant blur. “We can play it a few different ways here. And that’s what we want. We’re funded to run programmes here. I just completed an edible flower workshop earlier today. Last week it was on basic soil science. We have a few people with different skills who’ll be conducting various classes for the community. Some have their own farms or homesteads; we also have entrepreneurs who are cooks. the list goes on,” elaborates Parry.
I duly learn that Parry meticulously selected the vegetation in this edible landscape, with emphasis on those plants and trees whose parts can serve various functions. “We want to be able to make use of every part of the plant, from the buds to the leaves, not only for cooking but also for food decorating. Flowers make great decorations for food. You see how a lot of artisanal cafes these days are using the blue pea flower (clitoria ternatea) in drinks and to decorate their cakes? And then there’s the basil flower. It has an intense smell and goes well in baked products.”
The Park, continues Parry, his eyes lighting with pride under his glasses, is rich in content. “When you’re here and you start seeing and smelling stuff, your brain goes to a different plane. And that’s what we want — to engage.”
A greener past
His speech eloquent and mannerisms befitting an English gent, I’m curious to know more about Parry’s background. He duly obliges as we take a seat under the shade of his makeshift ‘studio’ located at the end of a winding path and on a raised mound overlooking a sweeping panorama of the Park.
“I was born in Johor Baru to civil servants parents,” begins the 61-year-old, his voice low. “I lived on Jalan Skudai right across from the Straits. We used to go to Lido Beach every weekend to swim and our house, a wooden colonial-style government quarters was actually one padang (field) away from the English college. My neighbour was the masonic lodge and the caretaker’s children were my friends. I remember we used to run around in that compound which was full of fruit trees.”
Growing up, it was just natural to be mindful of the environment, says Parry. “The caretaker’s family had chicken and geese. They grew vegetables and we had fruit trees. And everyone grew serai (lemongrass) and pandan (screwpine). You might have a jambu tree and your neighbour might have mango. And we’d swop. No one ever went and bought fruit.”
Their supply of fish, which they’d get fresh every few days, recalls Parry, came from the Straits. “You know, all of these things are actually what we aspire to in our quest for sustainable living today. Personally, I think I’m really lucky to know what that means,” he muses aloud.
Suffice to say, if Parry can turn back the clock, he would. His sigh heavy, he laments: “Those were the days when you could actually see trees that bore fruit and people selling their orchard products by the roadside. All this movement is disappearing. I think that’s why I’m so interested to do this because I just want to hold on to the shirt tail. It concerns me that people have just moved in this other direction. They just want to eat pizza and Korean fried chicken and Japanese Teriyaki!”
The affable conservationist pursued his 6th form education in the UK before going on to do his Economics degree at Loughborough University. Although creatively-inclined, his parents persuaded him to follow the path well-trodden — as was the norm for Asian parents back then.
Chuckling, Parry recalls: “I then kind of half lied and said I was going to do Chartered Accountancy. When I turned 21, I did an about turn and went to work for a fashion company instead! It was just a boutique and it wasn’t long before I became a manager and started designing the window. Soon after, I graduated to the position of ‘buyer’ and then I left to start my own line.”
He did that for a while in London before moving to the Big Apple where he worked for a big company. “I wanted a different experience. I became a designer and subsequently a creative director, working at Claiborne, Levi Strauss and Perry Ellis as consultant design director.”
When he opted to go it alone as a freelancer, Parry worked independently as a graphic artist servicing design teams. His brows furrowing, he recalls: “The business of design was so big then. Design studios bought inspiration from others because they had to design things ahead of time. I was selling ideas in the form of art work. I did that for a while and occasionally I’d return to doing some consultancy just for the pay. But I left eventually because I really didn’t want to work for big corporations anymore.”
He continued to do his consultancy work even upon his return to the country. And then? “I got sucked into this landscape stuff!” says Parry, chuckling good-naturedly. On how he got the ‘gig’ to design parks, Parry confides: “I told the folks at Khazanah Nasional Bhd that Iskandar Puteri should be about great landscapes. I suggested to them that we should develop a couple of parks with a very strong sense of concept of landscape.”
Adding, he recalls: “I remember reminding them that we’re really quite different from Singapore. Singapore is running out of landscape; they really have no more land. We still have plenty. And I said that our green spaces should be very much a part of our development.”
Now that he’s got his wish, what next, I tease. Eyes dancing mischievously, Parry retorts: “I’m done! I’m going back to designing textiles! Batik maybe. This has been such a push doing this. The road has been two years long!”
But you’re leaving a legacy, no? A pause and then Parry replies: “Well, that’s true! And it’s quite a privilege to get to do this. There’s this Greek proverb that says, “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” Well, it’s not true in my case. I’m going to get the chance to sit under the shade of quite a few trees I think!”.
Photos by Little Miss Granola, Intan Nazira Nazri and courtesy of Medini Iskandar Malaysia