Okra (Hibiscus esculentus) is a unique, annual vegetable from the same family as the hollyhock. It is usually the color of fresh corn husks, has the shape of a spike and the texture of a grooved cucumber. When sliced, it may remind you of a tiny star fruit. In this short video, you’ll see how easy it is to add to your garden planting.
Although technically a fruit because its seeds are inside the plant, okra is usually referred to as a vegetable that is also called “lady fingers” in reference to their shape, and comes in more than one variety. It is a favorite in the American South and areas of Africa and the Mediterranean, where it is usually cooked.
As an ancient crop, okra was also used medicinally. The leaves were used for pain relief and urinary problems. Today, it is still used by holistic practitioners to treat lung inflammation and sore throats and to add bulk to stools as a laxative. It may also be effective for acid reflux, cataracts and atherosclerosis.1
Okra is a warm weather crop, easily grown in your garden and can be harvested every several days. The vegetables are easy to use in your meals and the plants look great in your garden as they flower throughout the summer months.
History of the Mighty Okra
Okra goes by a number of other names including bamia, gumbo and ochre.2 The name likely derives from one of the Niger-Congo groups of languages, which became Anglicized in the late 18th century.
It’s believed okra originated near Ethiopia and was cultivated by the ancient Egyptians. Cultivation spread the plants throughout North Africa and the Middle East, where the seed pods were eaten cooked and the seeds were toasted, ground and used as a coffee substitute.3
Okra was brought to the Caribbean and the U.S. in the 1700s, either by slaves from West Africa or by French colonists to Louisiana. However the debut in the Western Hemisphere was earlier in the 1600s in Brazil through Africa.4 In the U.S., okra is commonly used in Cajun, Southern and Creole cooking.
Make Your Choice from Several Varieties of Okra
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange lists 36 different varieties of okra you may grow from seed at home. Although most are a deep green color, some varieties are lightly streaked red to full deep red, like the Asian Jing Orange Okra, whose stems are also bright red and the leaves have red veins.5
A typical plant grows to 4 feet in height, but some varieties grow over 7 feet tall. The Clemson Spineless variety accounts for the greatest number of commercial and residential plantings of okra in California.6 The term spineless refers to a relative lack of spines on the pods and branches.
The Star of David is an open-pollinated okra heirloom plant growing 7 feet tall or higher with purplish leaves and chubby pods. Several hybrid plants include the Annie Oakley, Green Vest and 1285. Red colored okra include Red Velvet, Burgundy and Bowling Red.
If you’re looking for an oversized vegetable, try the Perkins Mammoth long pod maturing in 60 days and growing to a height of 6 to 10 feet. The Old Farmer’s Almanac recommends the following varieties:7
- Annie Oakley — This hybrid plant takes 52 days to mature and has spineless pods. It grows to about 5 feet tall.
- Park’s Candelabra Branching — This plant is a base-branching okra variety, which makes harvesting a bit easier.
- Louisiana Green Velvet — This hybrid plant is good for larger garden areas. It is vigorous and grows to be 6 feet tall. It is also smooth and spineless.
Take Care of Your Okra Garden
The okra plant prefers dry soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.0. Plants do well in fertile soil with added compost. Whether or not a nitrogen-based fertilizer is needed will depend on the amount of nitrogen already in your garden soil. Too much nitrogen may result in more leaves than vegetables.8
Prepare the area with well-draining soil in full sun. Although they are not wide plants, they do grow tall so be sure to space out the rows 3 to 4 feet apart to allow for plenty of sunshine to get to the lower leaves.9 The okra plant is a warm-weather plant so consider starting indoors three to four weeks before the last spring frost, in peat pots under full light.
Since the growing season is generally 50 to 60 days for okra, you can also start them directly in your garden after the last frost, or under a cold frame three to four weeks before the last frost. Without the cold frame, you must have stable warm weather, and the soil must be warmed to 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit.10
Plant the seeds three-fourths to 1 inch deep.11 Seeds may be slow to germinate, but you can speed the process by soaking the seeds overnight in water, or abrading them lightly with sandpaper to break the hard seed coat before planting.12
If you are transplanting okra seedlings, be sure to space them 2 feet apart to provide ample room for growth, and the rows 3 to 4 feet apart. If you’re sowing seeds outdoors, thin the seedlings to allow for similar spacing.
Once the plants have sprouted, remove weeds and mulch heavily to prevent weed growth. At this time you might also side dress the plants with aged manure or rich compost.
Harvesting and Storing Okra
The first harvest from your planting should be ready about 60 days after planting, depending upon the variety you plant. Since the okra becomes hard and woody if left on the plant too long, you’ll want to harvest when they are 2 to 3 inches long. This may be nearly every other day. The vegetables appear on the plant approximately four days after the flower.
Cut the stem of the okra just above the cap with a knife. Some varieties have been bred to snap off the plant when they’re ready to harvest. If the stem is too hard to cut, the pod is likely too old and should be thrown out.13
Remember to use gloves and wear long sleeves when you’re harvesting or caring for your okra plants. Most varieties are covered with tiny spines that irritate the skin, unless you have planted a spineless variety. Interestingly, this irritation does not happen internally when you eat them.
As you are harvesting every couple of days, you’ll want to store the okra until you have enough for a meal. You can place the uncut and uncooked pods into freezer bags and keep them in the freezer for several months and use them during the winter.14 Canned okra can also be used for frying later in the winter (although I don’t recommend frying your foods). The process is similar to canning other vegetables.15
Watch for Pests Through the Growing Season
It’s important to rotate your crop every four years as old varieties tend to have deep root systems. In years when your area has a high grasshopper count, the insects may eat the lower leaves of the plants.16
Other pests and diseases affecting okra plants are aphids, corn earworms, stink bugs and fusarium wilt. Aphids are little green bugs appearing on the top or bottom of the leaves. They are soft-bodied and can survive in almost any temperature zone and multiply quickly, so it’s important to get them under control.17
Look for misshapen, stunted or yellowing leaves and check for the underside as this is where aphids love to hide. If the leaves or stems have a sticky substance it’s also a sign aphids have been drinking plant sap. Try spraying the leaves with cold water from the hose as sometimes all they need is a cold blast to dislodge them from the plant.
You can also try a mix of dishwashing soap and water to kill the insects. Reapply soapy water every two to three days for two weeks in order to completely get rid of the insects. With a large invasion you may try dusting the plants with flour as it constipates the pests and kills them.18
Corn earworms can be deterred by spraying the plants with mineral oil as soon as the silks form; repeat after rainy spells.19 Fusarium wilt is found commonly throughout the U.S. and is a soil-borne pathogen.20 The fungus enters through the root system and interferes with water distribution in the plant.
Symptoms of the disease usually appear in the latter part of the growing season and are first noted at the lower part of the plant. Unfortunately, the pathogen can survive for years in the soil and is often spread by insects and garden equipment.
When possible, plant resistant varieties. Take out the infected growth from the garden and sterilize your pruning shears.21 Use of high nitrogen fertilizers may increase the susceptibility, so a slow-release organic fertilizer is your better choice.
If the disease persists, you may have to remove the affected part of the garden and heat the soil by leaving a clear plastic tarp on the surface for four to six weeks during the hottest part of the year. This reduces many of the pests inhabiting the soil, including nematodes, fungi, insects and weed seeds.22
Powerful Health Benefits Packed in a Small Pod
Okra pods are rich in vitamins and minerals, including quercetin, catechin and epicatechin.23 They are also known to be high in vitamin C, vitamin K and folate. Many health benefits come from superior fiber content helping to regulate digestion and maintain blood sugar levels.
Okra extracts have been used to reduce oxidative stress and insulin resistance in research on pregnant rats induced with gestational diabetes.24 Scientists found the extract exerted potential antihyperglycemic and hypolipidemic effects and also was associated with reduced damage to pancreatic tissue.
In another study,25 researchers found okra may improve glucose homeostasis and reduce B-cell damage in diabetes. A 2018 study26 asserts okra could improve metabolic complications, and if it has a beneficial effect on the pancreas in rats, benefits may translate to humans, as well.
One vital compound found in okra is glutathione. Foods27 containing glutathione fall into two categories: those containing the glutathione molecule and those promoting glutathione production and/or “upload” the activity of glutathione enzymes in your body.
However, the okra must remain uncooked as cooking glutathione foods diminishes the content. Storage methods can affect levels as well. One study shows dietary glutathione intake can lower your risk of oral and pharyngeal cancer.28
An animal study29 observed that it protects against diabetic nephropathy (damage to kidneys due to diabetes) and neuropathy (damage to nerves and eventual renal failure).30
Okra contains a number of valuable nutrients, including fiber. Several of the most prominent must be obtained through food, and if you don’t get enough of them, a deficiency can seriously compromise your health. Five of the most beneficial include:31
• Potassium — A mineral as well as an electrolyte, as it conducts electrical impulses through your body, potassium helps normalize your muscle contractions, heart rhythm, blood pressure, digestion, pH balance and more. Since your body doesn’t produce it, you must get an optimal amount from food, while making sure you balance it with your sodium intake.
• Folate — One of several B vitamins, this one produces red blood cells, and makes and repairs your DNA. A deficiency can lead to anemia, depriving your cells of oxygen. One of its most crucial functions is for pregnant women as it’s involved with preventing birth defects.
Note: Although many people interchange them, do not confuse folate, which occurs naturally in foods, with folic acid, which is a synthetic form of vitamin B9 used as a supplement and an additive to processed foods.
• Calcium — Stored in your bones, calcium works with vitamin D to ensure you avoid brittle, prone-to-break bones. To keep calcium from settling in areas it shouldn’t be and directing it to where it’s needed, calcium also needs vitamin K2.
• Vitamin K — A fat-soluble vitamin, it plays a critical role in protecting your heart, building your bones, optimizing your insulin levels and helping your blood to clot properly. Vitamin K can help prevent heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, multiple types of cancer and even Alzheimer‘s disease.
• Vitamin C — This powerful antioxidant lessens both the duration and severity of a cold and is necessary to produce collagen, the most abundant protein in mammals, which keeps your skin and tissues firm but flexible. A vitamin C deficiency weakens your immune system.
How to Use and Prepare Okra at Home
Okra produces a sticky, viscous fluid called mucilage under low heat. Boiling and applying the transparent mucilage to your hair as a conditioner may help fight dandruff and give an added shine. Five serving alternatives, with a few twists, are inspired by the Smithsonian magazine:32
- Fried okra — This is the traditional Southern way of serving okra, involving corn meal and so-called “vegetable oils,” but it’s not the healthiest. If you choose to eat fried okra, be sure to use a healthy cooking oil such as coconut oil instead, perhaps with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese added, and cook it at a lower temperature.
- Gumbo — One option of using okra in gumbo is to use is for thickening33 for taste and with the obligatory “holy trinity” of bell pepper, onion and celery. This is a Southern staple. In fact, the African name “gombo” is where the recipe was derived. It’s often mixed with meat, tomatoes and bay leaves.
- Pickled okra34 — Using the sweet and spicy variety of okra, this is another way to serve the vegetable, often with dried chilies, black peppercorns, mustard seeds, hot peppers, vinegar, fresh dill, salt and rice wine vinegar.
- Grilled or oven-roasted okra35 — This recipe can be as simple as dousing clean, quartered okra pods with olive oil and sprinkling them with salt and pepper on a baking sheet, then cooking for 15 minutes.
- Stewed okra — This is a great way to add the nutrients but with stronger-flavored flavors, such as beef broth, lamb, balsamic vinegar, cloves, tomato paste, garlic, mint leaves and spices, like in the case of banya, an Egyptian meat and okra stew.