Click to download a closeup of this okra blossom beside a pair of big fuzzy ready-to-harvest pods.
A member of the hibiscus family, okra is an annual that gets 3-8' tall (depending on the cultivar) and bears yellow flowers that give rise to the familiar okra pods so valued in Cajun gumbos. The plant is a rather coarse annual with large lobed, slightly spiny leaves and a thick, semiwoody stem with few branches. The flowers are showy: hibiscus-like with pale yellow or cream colored petals and purplish hearts. Okra blooms and produces over an extended season, usually until first frost.
Cornucopia II lists 25 varieties of okra available from American seedsmen. They come in green, pale lime, purple and red pod colors. Some are adapted especially for northern climates, even performing well in southern Canada. Some are dwarf varieties, suited for small gardens; some are spineless and some are velvety until cooked. The standard American okra is 'Clemson Spineless", accounting for some 90% of commercial production, and serving the home gardener well for many decades.
Okra is native to the Old World tropics (probably West Africa) and has become established in the wild in some New World tropical areas. It is generally believed that okra first reached the New World during the days of slave trafficking. Okra is a popular and important food in Third World tropical countries. It is widely used in India, Africa and the Middle East, but almost unknown in Europe and northern North America.
July's heat and humidity bring okra pods to peak perfection at the Florida A&M University Community Garden in Tallahassee, Florida. Click to download a large version (800x600) of this image.
Culture Light: Full sun for best production. Moisture: Keep fast growing okra well watered. Hardiness: USDA Zones 5 - 11. Okra is a hot weather annual. Don't even think of planting your okra seeds until summer has arrived and the nights stay above 55 F. Best growth occurs when soil temperatures are above 65 F. From seedling to first harvest takes only about 60 days, however. If your warm weather growing season is shorter than that, start the plants indoors, setting out after all danger of frost has passed, and maybe even use a cold frame on the cooler nights. Propagation: You can speed up germination if you soak okra seeds in water for 24 hours before planting. Sow seeds about a half inch deep in one long row or in rows 3' apart, and thin to 12 or 18" between plants.
Okra should be picked every 2-3 days before the pods become tough and woody. This usually means before the pods exceed 5" in length, although size doesn't really matter: it's the age of the pods rather than their length that determines if they are too woody and stringy to eat. Use your thumbnail to test for tenderness. Even if you aren't going to use the okra, picking every other day encourages continued production. Cut the pods off on the stem with shears or a knife; don't cut off the caps as this will cause them to "bleed" and become slimy. Use okra as soon as possible after harvesting and do not store in the refrigerator. In tropical climates, it is common to cut back mature okra plants to the ground for a second flush of growth and pod production. Be sure to side dress with a balanced fertilizer.
Okra flowers resembles those of its close cousins the hibiscus and rose-of-sharon. Okra pods can be seen below and to the left of the blossom.
Our favorite way to eat okra is to lightly sauté the fresh pods (including the caps and a short length of the stem) in olive oil, then eat all but the cap and stem. This way they are NEVER slimy. Our other favorite way to eat okra is cut up (without the caps) and cooked in a pot with sliced tomatoes and onions. Okra for gumbo is cut into sections (the caps discarded), and the sliminess acts as a thickener. Okra is also dried and powdered to use as a thickener. Many southerners like their okra dipped in batter and deep fried. This also eliminates the sliminess. Okra is also great pickled; use the recipe for cucumbers that comes with the supermarket pickling spice. Okra seeds removed from pods too mature and woody to eat can be boiled, baked, ground into meal for bread or tofu, or used as a coffee substitute. In India, the pods are dried, sliced into sections, and then fried for a crunchy, almost breadlike snack. We freeze okra whole, with the caps and a short length of stem, to use later in gumbos, soups and stir fry. Just keep adding more fresh pods to the freezer bag until it's full, then take 'em out as you need them.
Okra is low in calories and high in vitamins A and C and in calcium, iron and protein. Properly prepared, it is delicious and not at all mucilaginous or "slimy." Americans rank okra as one of their least favorite vegetables. Apparently they haven't had whole okra sautéed in olive oil, or pickled okra, or a big pot of tomatoes, onions and okra stew, not to mention a New Orleans seafood gumbo!
WARNING Many people get an itchy (but short-lived) reaction from the little spines on the leaves and stems of okra, and should therefore be careful when working in the okra patch. Wear gloves and a long-sleeved shirt if you are bothered. However, even highly sensitive individuals do not get the reaction from eating okra.