Lady’s fingers, ochro, kopi arab, bhindi, okro, and gumbo; all pseudonyms for that quirky edible seedpod, officially known as Abelmoschus esculentus, that many of us simply call okra. Okra is nestled comfortably in the Malvaceae (mallow) family of plants, which also houses hollyhock, cotton, and hibiscus. While there is some question if okra is a fruit or vegetable, it does contain seeds all wrapped up in a nice little package we can eat. So by definition, okra is a fruit, and one that can be found in various parts of the world. From Egypt to England, Brazil to Belgium, people are enjoying all okra has to offer.
While okra can be found just about anywhere, its origin is up for debate. Some believe it was first cultivated in Ethiopia or West Africa, while others counter that South Asia has dibs. Whichever it is, we do know that okra is a hearty plant that can be planted almost anywhere, and do exceedingly well. What makes okra so hearty and grow so prolifically, is that it is drought tolerant, loves the sunshine, and while it prefers warmer climates, it can even be grown in temperate zones. As long as okra is planted about 2 weeks after the last expected frost date, after the soil has had a chance to warm a bit (> 65°F), it will be successful. If planting later in the season, just be aware that okra’s nemesis is frost.
When planting okra in more temperate climates, this perennial plant becomes an annual and must be replanted each year. To plant okra it is best to soak the seeds overnight to improve germination. It is typical to soak seeds in water; however some do use buttermilk or a weak vinegar. The acidic nature of buttermilk and vinegar help soften its hard seed coat. Okra seeds can be planted in 1” deep hills that are about 18-24” apart. As they begin to grow, thin out the stragglers so the sturdier ones can thrive. Be sure your plants have plenty of sunshine, at least 6 hours, and are in well drained, slightly acidic to neutral soils (pH 6.5-7.5). If you find your soil is too alkaline, adding in coffee grounds can help drop the pH level, creating a more acidic environment.
As most gardeners can attest, we are not the only ones that enjoy dining on fresh produce growing in our gardens. Aphids and certain moth larvae can become pests for okra if not managed.
Inviting ladybugs and other predatory insects can help keep pest populations under control.
If moth larvae are the problem, cover your plants at night with a light bedsheet to keep the adults from laying eggs on your plants.
Okra can also become a victim to certain fungi. To help prevent this make sure your plants are receiving plenty of sunshine. Also implementing crop rotation within your garden is extremely helpful in reducing disease and pests. If your plants do become victims of fungi, trim the affected parts and get rid of them. Do not put them in your compost pile. This will only help spread the disease.
As your plants mature they will bloom with beautiful little whitish-yellow flowers that resemble their relative the hibiscus.
After that point, the okra plant will begin to grow small seedpods that will be ready for the picking when they are 2-3 inches long. Picking them at this size, and picking every 1-3 days, helps ensure they will be tender. Pruning shears are best to remove seedpods. This makes a nice even cut of the stem. If you find the stem difficult to cut, then pods are too old and will not be good for eating.
If planting from seeds, the okra fruit will ready to pick within approximately 3 months. If transplants were used, the fruit will be ready in about 2 months.
Once the harvest has ensued, the okra preparation and eating can begin. As with many vegetables, simply sautéing okra in olive oil or butter and adding seasoning is enough to make a delicious dish. However, if you would like to go beyond that, there is plenty to do with okra. Okra can be prepared immediately, or saved for later by canning or freezing. Okra will last in the refrigerator for about 5-7 days, in the freezer for about 6 months, and up to 1-2 years if sealed and canned.
If you choose to freeze okra, be sure to blanch it (and then cool it) prior to freezing. Blanching for 3 minutes should do the trick.
Okra is often thought to be sticky or slimy. This is due to the mucilage it produces. Soaking in vinegar can help reduce this. However, the mucilage is useful in cooking as it helps thicken some dishes. One such dish is gumbolaya, a mix of gumbo and jambalaya. To make this dish tryout the following recipe:
2-3 cooked chicken breasts
2-3 cups cauliflower rice*
16 oz andouille sausage (cut into ¼ inch pieces)
2-3 cloves of garlic (smashed and chopped)
1 large onion (chopped)
4 stalks of celery (chopped)
1-2 bell peppers (chopped)
2-3 cups okra (sliced)
1 28 oz can of diced tomatoes
3-5 cups broth (depending on how “soupy” you want it to be)
Salt and pepper to taste
Herbs and spices to taste. Try thyme, oregano, sage, parsley, or whatever you prefer.
Add all ingredients to one big pot and heat to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and let cook for about 60 minutes. Stir occasionally. If you find it is drying out, add more broth.
Gumbolaya makes great leftovers. In fact, eating it the next day seems to enhance the flavor.
Shrimp can also be added to this dish (about ½ lb). Just be sure those little guys are peeled, deveined, and cooked prior to adding.
This recipe is a very forgiving recipe and one that screams “make it your own”. So feel free to add more or less of any ingredient, add spices you like, heat it up with some hot sauce, and use versions of ingredients you enjoy. You are the one eating it, so make it enjoyable to you!
* To make cauliflower rice, put cauliflower florets in a food processor and process until about the size of a rice grain. You can add this directly to your pot of gumbolaya, or sauté in butter or olive oil, prior to adding, to enhance flavor.
Goodness of Okra:
Adding okra to your diet can increase your fruit/vegetable intake which is valuable in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Adding okra to your diet can increase your intake of fiber, as well as add vitamins C, K, A, B6, folate (B9), thiamine (B1), magnesium, calcium, and potassium to your diet. Due to the fact that okra is not a starchy food, it is low in carbohydrates. It is also low in calories, as 1 cup of cooked, chopped okra comes in at ~35 calories.
With okra’s beautiful blooms, hearty growing style, numerous nutritional offerings, and easy preparation, it’s a plant worth adding to your garden and diet.
Beautiful Edibles Blog. 2017. University of Maryland Extension. Vegetable Profiles: Okra. https://extension.umd.edu/growit/vegetable-profiles-okra
Iannotti, M. May 06, 2016. About Home. Growing Okra in the Backyard Vegetable Garden. https://gardening.about.com/od/vegetables/p/Okra.htm
Choose My Plate.gov. October 7, 2016. US Department of Agriculture. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/tools-supertracker
The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Okra. Planting, Growing, and Harvesting Okra. https://www.almanac.com/plant/okra
Plants Database. Natural Resource Conservation Service. US Department of Agriculture. https://plants.usda.gov/java/ClassificationServlet?source=profile&symbol=Malvaceae&display=31
Smith, P., et al. 2015. Clemson Cooperative Extension. Okra. https://www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/plants/vegetables/crops/hgic1313.html
University of Illinois Extension. 2017. University of Illinois. Watch Your Garden grow. Okra. https://extension.illinois.edu/veggies/okra.cfm
Wikipedia. December 2, 2016. Okra. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okra