Mention okra to a group of people and you’ll likely get strong reactions, ranging from deep affection and cultural connections to disgust, derision and revulsion. There is little middle ground when it comes to someone’s opinion about eating okra. In a USDA survey, adults named okra as one of the three vegetables they liked least. Children were even less impressed.
Frankly, I’m appalled and feel compelled to come to okra’s defense. I’ll spare you the “well, you just don’t know how to prepare it” speech…for now, but I hope that over the course of this article you doubters out there will be willing to give okra a try. I like the way the book Lost Crops of Africa puts it: “As with avocado or whisky, the palate’s initial resistance usually mellows with greater exposure.” See there? You just need to give okra a chance.
If you live in the South, you probably grew up eating fried okra or okra gumbo. There are myriad ways to prepare okra, including fried, sautéed, boiled, stewed, steamed, in soups, grilled or simply eaten raw when young and tender.
If your family roots reach back to Africa, India, Southeast Asia or several other countries where okra is beloved, there are many other okra-centric dishes that come to mind, and ways to utilize okra not familiar to most of your fellow gardeners.
Like other crops of African origin, including Southern peas, watermelon and peanuts, okra is historically intertwined with the tragic history of the African slave trade. While we grow a lot of okra in the South, the U.S. only ranks 24th on the list of okra-producing countries. India tops the list, producing approximately 600 times more okra than we do.
The origins of okra are still being debated, with compelling cases made for Ethiopia and Eritrea in East Africa, for West Africa, and for India and parts of Southeast Asia. I find the case for an East-African origin to be most compelling.
Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is among the most important vegetable crops of the world’s tropical and subtropical regions. It goes by many names, including gumbo (from several African languages), lady’s-fingers, bhindi, bamia, bamya, gombo, quimbombo and quingombo.
It belongs to the same family as cotton and hibiscus, as even a passing glance at the blooms of these species will suggest. Hailing from hot climates, it is quite at home in the South, which is good news for those of us who garden here.
It is tolerant of a range of soil types, including heavy clays, and prefers a pH around 6.5, although it can tolerate a range from 6 to a little above 7. While it is most productive with moderate soil fertility and moisture, it can tolerate drought conditions better than most of our vegetable garden crops.
Okra is a good source of dietary fiber, both insoluble fiber (which is important for maintaining a healthy digestive tract) and soluble fiber (which helps stabilize blood-sugar levels and lower serum cholesterol). It is very low in fat and carbohydrates, while offering a good source of vitamins A, C, K, B6, and thiamine, as well as magnesium and folate.
We grow okra for the pods, but there are many other uses for this plant around the world. Young okra leaves are edible and, in fact, more nutritious in general than the pods. Cook the leaves in soups or in a mix of other cooked greens. The blooms are also edible both raw and cooked. The seeds can be roasted and ground as a caffein-free coffee substitute, although I must wonder about the culinary quality of the brewed results.
Young, tender okra pods can be dried whole or (after slicing) stored long term and reconstituted for use outside of okra season. Dried pods or pod slices can also be ground into a meal to store and use later in thickening soups. In Turkey, very small (less than one-inch) pods are strung and dried for use in making soup-type dishes.
Okra seed can be pressed for oil, and trials are currently underway to compare varieties for the best oil production. The plant stalks have softer interior fibers that can be used to make paper, while the very tough exterior bast fibers can be utilized in making cordage. George Washington Carver, in his multitude of experiments on finding uses for various plants, made rugs, rope and paper from okra plants.
VARIETIES AND CULTIVATION
Okra is one of the easiest garden vegetables to grow. Like most other fruiting plants, it performs best in a sunny location. Good drainage is ideal, although I’ve had it do well in heavy clay as long as the site sloped to allow surface drainage.
Okra varieties range in pod color, shape and ribbing, as well as plant-branching and height. ‘Clemson Spineless’ is the most famous variety and a dependable producer. Most improved varieties have pods which lack the spines that make handling or eating them raw very unpleasant.
I’ve tested more than a dozen different varieties of okra so far, and a few of my personal favorites include: ‘Cajun Jewel’ and ‘Jambalaya’ for compact growth habits; ‘Bull Dog’ (semi-compact), ‘Candle Fire’ and ‘Jing’ for outstanding ornamental value; ‘Jade’ for productivity and attractive dark-green pods; and ‘Bowling Red’ (very large plants) for long, tender, deep-burgundy pods.
Other outstanding varieties like ‘Zeebest’, ‘Beck’s Big’ and ‘Hill Country Red’ belong on the list. Ask me in another year or two of testing and I’ll have a half dozen more favorites.
Okra loves warm-to-hot temperatures, so wait to plant it until the weather warms considerably in spring. To get a head start, seeds can be placed in hot water and left for 12–24 hours to initiate germination. Starting from transplants is another option to get an earlier start, as okra transplants well if not left too long in the transplant containers.
It is best to start with a soil test to guide your fertilization plan. In the absence of a soil test, mix a complete fertilizer at a rate of two pints of synthetic or six pints of organic product per 100 square-feet of bed area into the soil about four-to-six inches deep prior to planting.
Plant spacing for optimum yields is around 12 inches in the row and 24–36 inches between rows, but wider spacings are fine and tend to encourage branching and shorter plant heights.
Water as needed to maintain moderate soil moisture. Once plants are up and have their first true leaves, mulch the area well to minimize weed competition.
After plants begin to bloom and if they appear to be lacking vigor, another application of fertilizer at half the above rate can be scattered, raked into the mulch or soil surface, and then watered in well. Avoid overfertilizing, as this can negatively affect production and may require you renting a helicopter to harvest plants.
The best time to harvest pods is about four days after bloom. Another way to gauge harvest time is when pods are three-to-four inches long. But if the plants are stressed and pods develop slowly, even pods of that length can be past their prime, tender stage. Some varieties are known to stay reasonably tender at longer lengths. All that said, life’s too short to eat marginally tender okra.
Once the weather heats up and production shifts into high gear, you may need to harvest your plants every two days to keep it from getting ahead of you. If you encounter any pods that are too large, remove them so the plant puts its energies into more production. Wear long sleeves and gloves when harvesting to protect from the plant’s tiny sharp spines that are very irritating to the skin.
Harvest in the morning before the sun heats up the pods, then store them in a cool, humid location around 45–50 degrees for longest-term storage. Refrigeration below 45 degrees can result in surface discoloration, pitting and decay.
There are several types of insects that can attack okra, but the main culprits are stink bugs, leaf-footed bugs and fire ants. The first two pierce pods with their mouthparts, causing them to be bumpy and misshapen. Fire ants feed on pods for their moisture and perhaps some carbohydrates, oil or protein. Spinosad-based baits are an effective option for controlling them around vegetable gardens.
Okra can be damaged by soil-borne root diseases, such as fusarium wilt, cotton root rot and southern blight, but no products are available to control these pests. Leaf-spot fungi can also occur but pose no significant risk.
The problem of greatest concern is nematodes, which when present in large numbers can severely stunt plants and reduce productivity. There isn’t a magic-bullet product for nematode control, so we must rely on a combination of practices, including solarizing, trap crops and crop rotations to reduce their numbers.
Root-knot nematodes are especially prevalent in sandy soils. If you have nematode hot spots, plant your okra in other areas of the garden and avoid moving soil on equipment from hot spots to uninfested areas.
One lesser-known aspect of okra production is the practice of ratooning. As the summer wears on, okra production can decrease. At that point the plants, or at least some of the plants, can be cut back to eight–10 inches above the ground.
They will quickly resprout several new shoots. Select four-to-six shoots and remove the others. The rejuvenated plants will be producing soon and produce well on into the fall season. Ratooned plants typically have greater total production over the season than non-ratooned plants.
THE “S” WORD
It is time for me to address the “S” word: “slime.” Okra-haters are quick to mention it in various forms, including gooey, slippery, slimy and in other forms of derision.
Okra aficionados know that the mucilage serves an important role in thickening dishes and is connected to some of okra’s health benefits too. I prefer to use the highbrow term “mucilaginous” or simply refer to it as “an acidic polysaccharide composed of galacturonic acid, rhamnose and glucose.”
Okra’s mucilaginous qualities are released when it comes into contact with water. Cooking okra with an acidic food, such as tomatoes, helps minimize the mucilage. I also like to brush pods with olive oil and salt, and then grill them for two minutes each on two or three sides, which also results in much less mucilage. However, like many food qualities and textures, I’d simply say, “Embrace the mucilage!” Many former haters have become big fans of okra…as they grew up and became adults. I’m just sayin’…
Okra makes great pickles, often in combination with other vegetables and a variety of spices. I like to make okra pickles by lacto-fermenting rather than by using vinegar. Nothing could be simpler than mixing water with salt in the proper concentration so bad organisms cannot survive but lactobacillus bacteria can take over and work their magic. It is the same process as making sauerkraut or kimchee.
If you wish to save seeds, simply bag the blooms late in the day prior to their opening and remove the bags in a couple of days after the flowers have dropped.
I prefer to use inexpensive drawstring organza bags to exclude pollinators. Make sure to tag these fruits so you know to leave them to mature for seed-saving, or just leave the organza bags on to designate which pods were self-pollinated. The bags can be opened in the morning (best to do between 8 and 10 a.m.) for hand pollinating, but some pollination will occur even without such assistance.
Give okra a spot in your garden this summer and try out a few new ways to prepare it. Perhaps you’ll discover a newfound love for this wonderful, versatile crop. If not, perhaps you can dry some pod-filled stalks for an interesting addition to floral arrangements or paint some pods like skinny Santas for Christmas-tree ornaments. tg
By Robert ”Skip” Richter
Brazos County Horticulturist
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service