August is a pretty stressful month for gardening and gardeners in our area. This month is often pretty dry and really hot but the garden and orchard can still be bountiful. This is the month for the plants that really love the heat and one of the best is okra.
Okra, Abelmoschus esculentus , is a flowering plant in the mallow family cultivated around the world in tropical and subtropical areas. Other plants in the mallow family include cotton, cocoa, and lots of ornamentals like hibiscus, rock rose, hollyhock and Turks cap. Okra is a perennial where it doesn’t freeze but we grow it as a warm season annual. It is also known as gumbo – primarily in the South – which also describes dishes which contain the vegetable. The word gumbo has an interesting derivation. It is a corruption of the Portuguese “quingombo,” which is itself a corruption of the word “quillobo” , the word for okra in parts of Congo and Angola. This reminds me of the whisper game “telephone” where a phrase is passed as a whisper around a circle and when it gets back to the originator it is totally unrecognizable.
Cultivation of okra originated in Africa over 1000 years ago and spread to Arabia, the Mediterranean, and India. Okra was growing in the Americas by the 1700’s and became commonplace throughout the Southern states by the 1800’s.
Okra is among the most heat and drought tolerant vegetables species in the world but is easily damaged by frost. It is an ideal summertime vegetable to follow the fading of our spring crops. Okra can be direct seeded in the spring 2 to 3 weeks after all danger of frost has passed or as late as 3 months before the first fall frost. If planting when soil temperatures are still cool, it can help germination to presoak the seeds overnight. For the best yields, okra should be planted in full sunlight in fertile, well-drained soil. Supplemental moisture if the weather remains dry keeps the plants robust and fruitful. Plants can be grown on one to two foot spacing depending on variety. Many varieties begin flowering and fruiting when only 1 foot tall. Dwarf varieties can top out at 2 to 3 feet while standard varieties can get well over 6 feet. Large plants can be cut back when too tall and will branch and re-grow. Different okra varieties can have green or red (maroon) pods and leaf stalks. With the large flowers and colorful stalks, some varieties might be considered as an ornamental. When cooked, the red pods turn green. Okra can sometimes have fungal and pest problems but don’t usually require much treatment. Aphids and stink bugs sometimes do need attention. The plants are very susceptible to root knot nematodes and may not grow well in gardens that have this particular pest. Recommended varieties for our area include Annie Oakley, Blondy , Cajun Delight , Clemson Spineless, Emerald, Louisiana Green Velvet , Evertender, Burgundy and Bull Dog. There is also the variety “Vidrine’s Midget Cowhorn” developed by a Mr. Vidrine (whom I don’t know but probably am related to) from Lawtell, Louisiana. This is the town where my parents first met. We have grown Clemson Spineless for years but my wife’s current favorite is Evertender – grown from seeds given to us by our local extension agent. It is common for many gardeners to save seeds from their okra for replanting. Just let the pods mature and dry on the plant then gather and remove the seeds before they shatter and fall out. If a number of varieties are grown together, the plants may cross pollinate and the seeds may be different than the parent.
Okra pods grow very fast and must be harvested before they become tough and fibrous. New flowers open daily and most pods will need to be harvested less than a week after pollination. The best tender okra will usually only be 3 to 5 inches in length. Okra that is too old should be removed to keep the plant in production. Because of the rapid growth, okra should be harvested at least every other day. Spines on the plant can be irritating to some so a long sleeve shirt and thin gloves can be helpful. A sharp knife or lightweight pruners make it easier to harvest without damaging the plant. Okra can be stored unwashed in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days.
Almost all of the okra plant is edible. The young tender leaves can be cooked like other greens. The flowers can be cooked or eaten raw in salads and the dried and roasted seeds can be ground and used as a coffee substitute or expressed for an edible oil. For most however, it is the tender pods that are the vegetable of choice. The pods are mucilaginous (some say slimy) which gives okra its ability to thicken soups and broths. Pods cooked in an acid, like vinegar or tomatoes, tend to be less slimy. Frying, roasting, grilling, or quick sautéing are all methods that cut back on the mucilage as well. Okra is a good source of fiber as well as vitamins C and K plus other minerals.
Fried okra is a Southern classic – either cut into rounds, fried whole or chopped into fritters. Okra gumbo made with shrimp and sausage is one of my favorites from my childhood. I’ve also had the Brazilian version called Caruru de Camarão . Pickled okra is a condiment we are never without. In West Africa, okra is made into a stew with chicken and peanut butter which I’ve not tried but sounds very interesting. Roasted whole okra drizzled with a bit of balsamic makes a really nice side dish.
When many of our fruits and vegetables are flagging in the heat, okra comes into its own. Although not native, it is certainly Texas tough and deserves a place in our summer gardens.
Brazos Valley Gardener, Orchardist, Apiarist and Instructor