Okra (also known as gumbo), is a tall-growing, warm-season, annual vegetable from the same family as hollyhock, rose of Sharon and hibiscus. The immature pods are used for soups, canning and stews or as a fried or boiled vegetable. The hibiscus like flowers and upright plant (3 to 6 feet or more in height) have ornamental value for backyard gardens.
Annie Oakley (hybrid; 52 days to harvest; compact plant; extra tender pods)
Dwarf Green Long Pod (52 days; ribbed pods)
Clemson Spineless (56 days; AAS winner)
When to Plant
Because okra seeds do not germinate well in cool soils, plant seeds after the soil has warmed in the spring, probably a week to 10 days after the date of the last frost for your area.
Spacing & Depth
Sow seeds 1 inch deep in hills 12 to 24 inches apart. When the seedlings are 3 inches tall, thin all but the one strongest plant per hill. The seeds may be soaked, wrapped in moist paper toweling or in water overnight, to accelerate germination.
Okra usually grows well in any good garden soil. Shallow cultivation near the plants keeps down weeds.
The pods should be picked (usually cut) while they are tender and immature (2 to 3 inches long for most varieties). They must be picked often—at least every other day. Okra plants have short hairs that may irritate bare skin. Wear gloves and long sleeves to harvest okra. Use pruning shears for clean cuts that do not harm the rest of the plant. When the stem is difficult to cut, the pod is probably too old to use. The large pods rapidly become tough and woody. The plants grow and bear until frost, which quickly blackens and kills them. Four or five plants produce enough okra for most families unless you wish to can or freeze some for winter use.
Aphids—Watch for buildup of colonies of aphids on the undersides of the leaves.
For more information on aphids, see our feature in the Bug Review.
Cabbage worms—Three species of cabbage worms (imported cabbage worms, cabbage loopers and diamond back moth worms) commonly attack the leaves and heads of cabbage and related cole crops. Imported cabbage worms are velvety green caterpillars. The moth is white and commonly is seen during the day hovering over plants in the garden. Cabbage loopers ("measuring worms") are smooth, light green caterpillars. The cabbage looper crawls by doubling up (to form a loop) and then moving the front of its body forward. The moth is brown and is most active at night. Diamondback worms are small, pale, green caterpillars that are pointed on both ends. The moth is gray, with diamond-shaped markings when the wings are closed. The damage caused by diamondback larvae looks like shot holes in the leaf.
The larval or worm stages of these insects cause damage by eating holes in the leaves. The adult moths or butterflies lay their eggs on the leaves but otherwise do not damage the plants. The worms are not easy to see because they are fairly small and blend with the cabbage leaves. Cabbage worms are quite destructive and can ruin the crop if not controlled. They are even worse in fall plantings than in spring gardens because the population has had several months to increase. About the time of the first frost in the fall, moth and caterpillar numbers finally begin to decline drastically.
For more information on cabbage worms, see our feature in the Bug Review.
Questions & Answers
Q. Should I remove the old okra pods?
A. Yes. Maturing, older, tough pods sap strength that could go to keeping the plant producing new pods daily. Unless you desire ripe pods for dried arrangements or seed saving, overmature pods should be removed and composted.
Q. Why doesn't my seed germinate even after soaking?
A. Okra seed does not keep well. Buy fresh seed each season, or save seed of non- hybrid varieties yourself by allowing a few pods on your best plant to mature. When the pods turn brown and begin to split at the seams, harvest them and shell the seeds from the pods. Dry seed thoroughly for several days, then store in a cool, dry place in tightly closed containers until next season.
Q. My okra plants grew over 6 feet tall and the pods were difficult to pick. What should I do?
A. Choose one of the new dwarf or basal-branching varieties, such as Annie Oakley, that grow only 2-1/2 to 5 feet tall.
Q. What causes yellowing, wilting and death of plants in midsummer?
A. These conditions are caused by either verticillium or fusarium wilt. Okra varieties, unlike certain tomato varieties, are not resistant to verticillium and fusarium wilt. Rotate crops to prevent buildup of crop-specific strains of these diseases in your garden.
Selection & Storage
Gumbo is Swahili for okra. The recent upsurge in the popularity of gumbo has also brought renewed attention to okra. Okra was brought to the new world by African slaves during the slave trade.
The pods must be harvested when they are very young. Preferably two inches long although three inch pods can also be salvaged. Harvest daily as the pods go quickly from tender to tough with increased size.
Refrigerate unwashed, dry okra pods in the vegetable crisper, loosely wrapped in perforated plastic bags. Wet pods will quickly mold and become slimy. Okra will keep for only two or three days. When the ridges and tips of the pod start to turn dark, use it or lose it. Once it starts to darken, okra will quickly deteriorate.
Nutritional Value & Health Benefits
Okra is a powerhouse of valuable nutrients. Nearly half of which is soluble fiber in the form of gums and pectins. Soluble fiber helps to lower serum cholesterol, reducing the risk of heart disease. The other half is insoluble fiber which helps to keep the intestinal tract healthy decreasing the risk of some forms of cancer, especially colorectal cancer. Nearly 10% of the recommended levels of vitamin B6 and folic acid are also present in a half cup of cooked okra.
Nutrition Facts (1/2 cup sliced, cooked okra)
Dietary Fiber 2 grams
Protein 1.52 grams
Carbohydrates 5.76 grams
Vitamin A 460 IU
Vitamin C 13.04 mg
Folic acid 36.5 micrograms
Calcium 50.4 mg
Iron 0.4 mg
Potassium 256.6 mg
Magnesium 46 mg
Preparation & Serving
Okra exudes a unique mucilaginous juice which is responsible for its thickening power in the famous Louisiana Creole gumbo dish. Aside from gumbo, okra compliments tomatoes, onions and corn, shellfish and fish stock. Okra has a subtle taste, similar to the flavor of eggplant.
Freezing is the best method for long term home storage of okra. Freeze only young, tender okra. Okra must be blanched before freezing, as with all vegetables. Unblanched okra will quickly become tough and suffer huge nutrient, flavor and color loss during freezing. Follow the procedure outlined below for successful home freezing.
To Prepare Okra for Freezing
Since freezing does not improve the quality of any vegetable, it is important to start with fresh green pods. Avoid pods longer than 2 to 2-1/2 inches long. Okra that is at peak quality for eating is best for freezing.
In a blanching pot or large pot with tight fitting lid, bring about 5 quarts of water to a rolling boil.
Meanwhile, wash, and trim of stems of okra pods, leaving caps whole.
Blanch no more than one pound of okra at a time. Drop pods into boiling water and immediately cover with a tight fitting lid.
Start timing the blanching immediately and blanch for four minutes.
Prepare an ice water bath in a large 5 to 6 quart container or use the sink.
Remove the okra from the blanching water with a slotted spoon or blanching basket.
Emerge the okra in the ice water bath for 5 min. or until completely cool. If ice is unavailable, use several changes of cold tap water to cool the vegetables.
Remove from water and drain.
Label and date, quart size, zip-closure freezer bags.
Pack okra into prepared freezer bags, squeeze out as much air as possible by folding the top portion of the bag over. Gently push air out and seal. Freeze for up to one year at 32°F or below.
Note: Blanching water and ice water bath may be used over and over again. Return blanching water to a boil after each batch of vegetables is blanched and replenish water if necessary.
Okra and Corn with Tomatoes
Serve this Carolina favorite over a bowl of long-grain rice with a piece of hot cornbread. The okra should be young, not longer than 2 inches. Vine ripen tomatoes and fresh bell peppers add to the richness of this dish.
- 2 tablespoons each butter and canola oil
- 1 large onion, thinly sliced into rounds
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon each thyme, red pepper flakes and basil
- 1 green bell pepper, seeded and finely diced
- 3 large fresh ripe, tomatoes seeded and chopped
- 4 ears corn, remove kernels, about 2 cups
(may use frozen or canned whole kernel, drained)
- 2 cups small okra pods, left whole or 1/4-inch-thick rounds
- 1/2 cup water or chicken stock
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
In a 10 inch iron skillet or heavy pan, heat olive oil and add onions, bay leaves, thyme, basil, and red pepper flakes. Sauté, and stir until onions are limp add bell pepper and continue cooking until onions are translucent. Add tomatoes, okra, water, salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low, and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add corn and cook 5 minutes longer. Taste, adjust seasoning if needed. Serve hot.
Makes 6 servings.
Okra and Green Beans
This dish tastes even better after refrigerating overnight. The flavors blend into a wonderful taste sensation. Serve it warm or cold. This dish can also be oven-baked. Instead of simmering, lightly cover with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes at 350°F.
- 3/4 pound fresh okra, uncut
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- Vinegar (optional)
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 3/4 pound fresh green beans
- 2 large garlic cloves, crushed then chopped
- 1 cup water plus 2 tablespoonssalt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 6-ounce can tomato paste
Wash okra pods, trim stems, do not remove caps. If desired soak okra in vinegar for 30 minutes to remove some of the stickiness. Rinse well and drain. Wash beans and cut into 3 inch lengths. Combine water, tomato paste, olive oil, onion, garlic, salt and pepper in a sauce pan and mix well.
Heat, stirring frequently, until mixture comet to boil. Add okra and beans and additional water if necessary to almost cover vegetables.
Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer gently until vegetables are crisp-tender, 20 to 30 minutes.
Makes 6 servings.