Monday, August 1, 2022

Okra: a fast growing, heat-loving crop

Burgundy okra is a beautiful and tasty addition 
to your summer vegetable garden.

Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is a fast growing, heat-loving annual crop native to the southwestern highlands of Ethiopia along the White Nile River. It has been grown in various parts of the world and was most likely brought to the Caribbean Islands and the southeastern states by enslaved peoples from Western Africa. At first, it served as a subsistence food for slaves, but was then accepted as a southern favorite. Thomas Jefferson grew it in his garden at Monticello, Virginia in the 1780s.

The mallow plant family

This crop plant belongs to the mallow plant family (Malvaceae). In addition to okra, plants in this family include roselle (Florida's cranberry), garden hibiscus, cotton, various mallows, and cacao (the source of chocolate). Most of the members of this family are edible, Those decorative hibiscus and mallow flowers are also edible if you grow them without using poisons. 

Also, many of the plants in this family produce a slime from the leaves, stem, roots, and fruit--some more than others. This slimy, mucilaginous quality of okra serves as a thickener and is savored in gumbo and other dishes. The slime is generated as you cut the okra fruit. It has been used medicinally, comparable to aloe vera as an ointment. Marshmallows were originally made from slime extracted from roots of a marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis), which is native to Eurasia. It was whipped like an egg white and this whipped concoction (sometimes with sugar added) was used as a vehicle for delivering unsavory medicines.

The lovely okra flowers rival its hibiscus relatives
for beauty, but last only one day. Here you can
see its overlapping petals.


Okra's typical form is a single thick stem reaching 6 to 15+ feet tall by the end of the season. The leaves are alternate and usually palmately lobed and covered with fine bristly hairs (pubescence) that many find irritating to their skin. When the plant is mature enough, the flowers grow in the axil where each leaf is attached to the main stem. The flowers are pale yellow with deep burgundy centers and are funnel-form with 3 to 5 united sepals, 5 separate, but overlapping petals, and numerous stamen united into a distinctive column around the pistil. They remain open only one day. Most okra cultivars produce most of their flowers in late summer as the days begin to get shorter.

The okra fruit is usually divided into five sections, but its shape is variable. Some are long and thin while others are short and fat. Many are pale green, but some are burgundy. Some are spineless, but many have sharp spines. Whatever their shape or color, okra pods mature quickly. Depending on temperature, they must be picked within four or five days of blooming. After that, the walls of the pod quickly lignify and they become woody and inedible.

Building swales for the okra is worth the time 
and effort because this greatly increases their yield.

Growing okra

Okra is an easy vegetable to grow in Florida's hot, wet summers. It produces a lot of fruit, so don't plant too many. I plan for 12 to 18 plants for the two of us. It flowers over a long period, and, as long as the pods continue to be picked, it will keep flowering until the days begin to cool off in the fall. It does best when grown in rich soil with plenty of irrigation. The last few years, I've ordered seeds from Southern Exposure--both the Burgundy Okra and the Gold Coast Okra.

I build a variation of a mound garden for my okra using kitchen scraps in trenches between the planting areas to enrich the soil and I build swales or indentations so the water stays in place. For more information on how I do this, see my Okra swales and Enriching soil posts. I use wire tomato cages to keep the okra growing straight, and if necessary, I use one or two taller poles and corral the plants with soft cloth ties.

While okra attracts some pest bugs like this 
leaf-footed bug, vigorous plants do not require
any treatment for them.

During the warmest days of summer, to supplement the rainfall and landscape-wide irrigation, I hand irrigate the okra with rain barrel water. This is when the swales are useful because I only direct water into those indentations so it doesn't run away. I also weed the swales to reduce competition for the water and soil nutrients, but once the plants are large enough to cast shade over the swales, the weeding is reduced.

Okra has its pests in the garden such as stink bugs and leaf-footed bugs, but the plants are so hardy that they don't make much difference. Root-knot nematodes can also be a problem for okra, so it's a good idea to bury some marigolds with the kitchen scraps to reduce the nematode population. But I've found over the years, that if the okra is well irrigated and growing in very rich soil, it will thrive despite the damage from the nematodes. Read my article on using marigolds to reduce nematodes.

Small scissors is the best okra harvesting tool.

Harvesting and using okra

As mentioned above, the fruit must be harvested before it becomes woody, and normally, this means that you'll be harvesting every day. We use small scissors for the harvesting so we make a clean cut on the stem of the fruit and so we don't injure the adjoining leaf or the main stem. After harvesting, we cut them into 1/4" slices and freeze them in a bag until we have enough for a gumbo or a mess of fried okra--about a pound. My husband does this prep work and weighs them. So far this season (end of July), our okra harvest has been more than 6 pounds. We have enjoyed them mostly in soups or gumbos, but we  recently had a nice batch of fried okra--it was the main course of two dinners. Yummy.

Some years our okra was so tall that we
needed a step ladder to harvest them.
This year's crop has yielded more
than 6 pounds. Soon I'll need the
ladder again for harvesting.

Ahh! Yummy fried okra for dinner. Grow your own okra--I took this photo a few years ago, so it's probably more expensive now.

So, I hope you're enjoying the dog days of summer by growing some beautiful and bountiful okra.

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt

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