All garden plants have a history with the various trails they took to find their way into our fields. The huge and mysterious continent of Africa, especially around Ethiopia, was home not only to our ancestors, but also the ancestors of many cultivated plants. This is where okra came from.
History is obscure and uncertain, but we can follow okra up to Egypt, where it has been commonly grown for hundreds of years. Okra also found its way across the Red Sea into Arabia. From there it spread completely around the Mediterranean and eastward to India.
In our little country, it probably landed with French colonists in Louisiana. Jefferson mentions it being grown in Virginia, and by the 1800’s, there were several distinct varieties. Both the words “okra” and “gumbo” are of African origin.
The flowers of okra let you know it is in the Hibiscus family, with the same beautiful swirl of petals as a Hollyhock. The plants are easy to grow once the soil warms up. If the soil temperature is 60 degrees, it can take a month to sprout, but it comes up in two weeks at 75 degrees. When the soil is 90 degrees, okrajumps out of the ground in less than a week.
Some folks freeze the seeds overnight, or soak them in warm water overnight, to help with germination. Alternatively, you can nick the tough seeds with sandpaper. I just wait until sweet potato planting time, Memorial Day weekend, and plant okra soon after, along with our lima beans.
Into a regular furrow, we drop about 6 seeds to a foot. The plants love rain or drought and always make the fall garden look great. They are simply so ornamental. This variety is burgundy and makes for tender, slender pods that need to be picked every few days.
We hoe them at first, and then put some hay around them late in the season to keep moisture in and weeds out. There seem to be no insects or diseases, at least around here.
Okra is slimy; you either don’t like it or you love it. It’s great for thickening up a soup, if you aren’t dipping it into cornmeal and frying it. We love it pickled.
The overlooked, unpicked pods get tough and big quickly. The seeds are used to make a high quality cooking oil, and they can be roasted to make a coffee substitute. Okra has been with us for much of our history and continues to grace southern gardens with its pretty foliage, flowers and fruit.