All About Okra

Names History Cultivation How to Freeze
Nutrition Recipes Seed Sources Stories
Events Pictures Crafts Links

Welcome to the Okra Page.

If you love okra, I would love to hear from you (email address at end of this page). I am also looking for any okra related comments/experience/recipes you may want to add to this page.

If you hate okra, you are being cheated! Try some of the recipes here, or visit someone who knows how to cook it properly. Also read about the nutritional benefits you are missing. In India, where I grew up, okra is the king of summer vegetables, and I could never get enough. It is also sometimes called "Ladies Fingers".

If you have any experience with growing okra in a greenhouse, please send your experience by e-mail.

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Names for Okra

It's scientific name is "Abelmoschus esculentus" and also "Hibiscus esculentus". In various parts of the world, it is known as Okra, Ochro, Okoro, Quimgombo, Quingumbo, Ladies Fingers, Gombo, Kopi Arab, Kacang Bendi, Bhindi (S. Asia), Bendi (Malaysia), Bamia, Bamya or Bamieh (middle east) or Gumbo (Southern USA). Apparently Gumbo is Swahili for okra. In Portugal and Angola, okra is known as Quiabo (plural: Quiabos), and in Cuba, as "quimbombo". In Japan it is known as okura. Patrick Taylor adds: "Okra has found its way to Taiwan, where it's called "qiu kui" (pronounced cheeoh kway). That's the Mandarin Chinese word for it in Taiwan - which might be the same in the PRC, or might not."

Mr. Jaakko Rahola writes from Finland:
Most (or at least very many) plants have several scientific names (not only two, but three, four and even more), because different scientists have named the plants based on their own ideas of the family relations of the plants. The first part ot the Latin name (always capitalized) is the family name, and the second part (always in lower case) is the species name - in this case "esculentus", meaning 'edible' in Latin. Abelmoschus is derived from the Arabic "abu-l-mosk" (meaning 'father of musk'), referring to the musk-scented seeds. Hibiscus again is the Greek name for mallow.

In this case, someone thought that okra belongs to the Hibiscus family (mallow plants), and named it accordingly. Later, some other scientist found so many differences from the Hibiscus, that he thought that the plant must get a family name of its own. This renaming of plants in different countries and by different scientists will continue until a final, modern DNA analysis is made on all plants and their real relations will be revealed. And that will take years, if not hundreds of years. We will have to live with several synonyms for most plants.

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History of Okra

I compiled the following History of Okra from bits and pieces from here and there. I am not sure how accurate this is. If you have anything to add or correct to this please let me know:

"Okra is found in it's wild state on the alluvial banks of the Nile and the Egyptians were the first to cultivate it in the basin of the Nile (12'th century BC). It was propagated then through North Africa to the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and India. It arrived then in the Americas at Brazil (1658), Dutch Guinea and at New Orleans before extending in the United States and going up to Philadelphia in 1781."

In the 1800's slaves from Africa used ground okra as a part of their diet, and this apparently led to the use of ground okra seeds as a coffee substitute by other southerners during the American Civil War blockades of the 1860's. Even today, ground okra is used in West Africa to make a "...local soup made from dried and ground okra, baobab leaves or rosselle. Fish may be added into it ..." (from a UNDP report ).

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Cultivation

Start okra from seed - it does not transplant well. The seed should be planted directly in the ground outside about 2 weeks after all danger of frost has passed. Here in Southcentral Wisconsin it means that I plant outside sometime between May 20 and 30.

The basic rule is to keep plants separated from each other by about 15 inches. I plant in beds that are four feet wide by about twenty feet long. I make three rows, and plant seeds about 18 inches apart within each row. Okra seeds are relatively large and easy to handle. They also germinate well if the soil is warm enough. I plant the seeds about half an inch deep, about three seeds at each spot. In most cases all three germinate, and when the plants are about six inches tall I thin them to only one plant every 18 inches.

Okra needs warm weather to grow well. This means that in northern climates you may not have much of a crop some years. The main thing you can do to help is to keep the bed weed free and mulched as much as possible. Watering is only needed occasionaly.

Most varieties will start yielding about 60 days after planting. The flowers are large, pale yellow and fairly ornamental (see pictures below). Each flower blooms for only one day and eventually forms one okra pod. Pick the pods when they are approx. 3 inches in length. Picking the pods while wet may darken the skin, though the taste is not affected. Typically it grows quickly, so you need to harvest every two days or so. The plants can eventually grow quite tall (5 feet or more), but will stop growing as soon as the temperature starts dropping down below 50 degs. (F).

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Okra Stories and Anecdotes

  • Mike Warren from San Antonio, Texas, writes:

    I have grown it several years, both in-ground in the traditional soil garden and several times in hydroponic planters. Both plantings always reach 6 or 7 feet in height with some plants topping out at 9 to 10 feet and still producing. In fact the only thing that I figure stopped it growing was the fact that I could no longer easily harvest the okra pods without damaging the plants, so the pods matured and the plant stopped growing and died.

    (and he later adds:) I wrote you a couple of weeks ago about my productive and tall okra plants which reach heights I estimated at 7 feet to 10 feet tall, since I saw in your web page that 5 feet was average. Clemson Spineless is the variety of Okra I have growing in my "in ground" garden as well as in my "hydroponic" garden, both out doors and in my back yard. The hydroponic okra only reached a height (plant height) of a little over 8 feet this year, but the in ground okra is over 9 feet and still growing (now approaching 10 ft, Sep. 10, 1999). I pickle most of it with a simple recipe: (see recipe for "Pickled Okra" below by M.Warren).

    Picking every other day or so, I am able to get over a case (12 pint jars) of pickled okra on a weekly basis, which I am told is much better than store bought pickled okra. This is the first year I have grown a garden in this soil, so it is virgin. It has been often over 100 F degrees so I water on a timer 15 to 30 minutes 6 AM and 6 PM with weekly feedings (in line to the sprinkler) of Miracle Grow or Peters water soluble fertilizer (Peters is preferred as it also has micro-nutrients and is less expensive). Also, my okra may be just a bit taller than others in my neighborhood but I have seen several gardens within a 10 block radius of my house with 8 foot to 9 foot tall okra plants (by appearance, not measurement). Here are the pictures.

    I think it is safe to say that Mike has the healthiest looking Okra plants I have ever seen!

  • On the other hand....
    Pam James from Colorado Springs, Colorado, writes:

    This is what happens when you try to grow okra at about 7000 feet. My 2 plants are in the middle of the picture 'towering' (!!!) over the soaker hose. The 2 pods I got (my entire crop) were about 1" and 1/2" each -- I hadn't even noticed that they bloomed.

    As my Arkansas cousin said; "well, now that's just sad, isn't it?"!!!!

    Fortunately there are lower and warmer places around here so I can get my okra needs met at the local farmers market.

    Click to enlarge

    You can click on the picture to see what she means.

  • Jim Fruth from Pequot Lakes, Minnesota, writes (in a note titled: "Some of my customers ask, "What is it?""):

    When I farmed in the Central Valley foothills of California, ten foot tall (and multi-branched) okra was common. I planted in trenches down the mountain and irrigated with a hose running from the top of the hill to the bottom. Today, as a Northern Minnesota farmer, I sell okra at my produce stand whenever I can coax a crop out of it.

    I think Jim proves that okra lovers are found everywhere.

  • Heather Tutorow sent this story about how okra was introduced to Modesto, California.

    I thought you might like this story. My grandparents are transplanted Oakies. They moved to Modesto, CA in 1950. My grandpa as long as I can remember has had at least an acre of okra. Right after thay moved to Modesto my grandfather woke up one morning to find several Sheriff's officers tromping through the okra and stepping on the watermelon. He went out to see what was up. The Sheriff was convinced that my grandpa was growing pot in his garden and had never heard of, let alone seen okra. It took a couple cups of coffee and a few of last years pickled okras to send this law officer on his way. He later became a close friend of the family. Much like everyone who has ever crossed paths with grandpa. It just isn't summer without okra.

    Thanks, Heather, that is indeed one to remember. For those who think they can do better than the Sheriff, I am attaching two pictures below. Might you be confused, also?

    Okra, or marijuana?            Okra, or marijuana?

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How to freeze Okra

Start with freshly picked okra. Wash, cut the stems off, being careful not to cut into seed chamber, otherwise the seeds may spill out. Blanch by putting into rapidly boiling water for about 3 minutes. Remove and cool immediately by placing under cool running water. Pat dry, optionally make a cut lengthwise, pack in plastic bags, seal tightly and place in the freezer. Should keep well upto a year.

An alternate method is suggested by visitor Pam from Colorado:

"I wash the okra and slice it into 1/4 -1/2 pieces, shake it in corn meal and freeze it in plastic bags in meal sized portions. I only ever fry it so that technique works great for me."

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Nutrition

Okra is a rich source of many nutrients, including fiber, vitamin B6 and folic acid. I got the following numbers from the University of Illinois Extension Okra Page. Please check there for more details.

Okra Nutrition (half-cup cooked okra)

  • Calories = 25
  • Dietary Fiber = 2 grams
  • Protein = 1.5 grams
  • Carbohydrates = 5.8 grams
  • Vitamin A = 460 IU
  • Vitamin C = 13 mg
  • Folic acid = 36.5 micrograms
  • Calcium = 50 mg
  • Iron = 0.4 mg
  • Potassium = 256 mg
  • Magnesium = 46 mg

These numbers should be used as a guideline only, and if you are on a medically restricted diet please consult your physician and/or dietician.

Sylvia W. Zook, Ph.D. (nutritionist) has very kindly provided the following thought-provoking comments on the many benefits of this versatile vegetable. They are well worth reading. (Dr. Zook has an excellent web site with other nutritional information and recipes, which you can visit at http://www.eatinaftereden.com/)

  1. The superior fiber found in okra helps to stabilize blood sugar as it curbs the rate at which sugar is absorbed from the intestinal tract.
  2. Okra's mucilage not only binds cholesterol but bile acid carrying toxins dumped into it by the filtering liver. But it doesn't stop there...
  3. Many alternative health practitioners believe all disease begins in the colon. The okra fiber, absorbing water and ensuring bulk in stools, helps prevent and improve constipation. Fiber in general is helpful for this but okra is one of the best, along with ground flax seed and psyllium. Unlike harsh wheat bran, which can irritate or injure the intestinal tract, okra's mucilage soothes, and okra facilitates elimination more comfortably by its slippery characteristic many people abhor. In other words, this incredibly valuable vegetable not only binds excess cholesterol and toxins (in bile acids) which cause numerous health problems if not evacuated, but then assures easy passage out of the body of same. Unlike some prescription and over-the-counter drugs for this, the veggie is completely non-toxic, non-habit forming (except for the many who greatly enjoy eating it), has no adverse side effects, is full of nutrients, and is economically within reach of most.
  4. Further contributing to the health of the intestinal tract, okra fiber (as well as flax and psyllium) has no equal among fibers for feeding the good bacteria (probiotics).
  5. To retain most of okra's nutrients and self-digesting enzymes, it should be cooked as little as possible, e.g. with low heat or lightly steamed. Some eat it raw. However, if one is going to fry it (and it is undeniably delicious prepared that way when rolled in cornmeal and salt), only extra virgin olive oil, or UNREFINED coconut butter is recommended (this is NOT the unhealthy partially hydrogenated product found in processed foods.) Organic ghee used by gourmet chefs, has the oil and flavor of butter without the solids, is also excellent for frying okra (does not burn like butter), and may be obtained from the health food store. (requests for sources for unrefined coconut butter and organic ghee may be sent to kochhar@physiology.wisc.edu).

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Okra Recipes

For best cooking results, okra should be fresh (not frozen). The pods should be small (3 inches or so long), or the okra becomes tough and stringy. If forced to use frozen okra, remove as much of the moisture as possible before cooking by spreading on a paper towel, or patting it dry after it thaws, etc.

"Avoid cooking okra in pans made of iron, copper or brass for their chemical properties turns the fruit black." I found this on a web page, but don't have any direct experience with okra turning black this way. If you can confirm or deny this please let me know.

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Okra Seed Sources

If you're starting out, please check at your local garden center or hardware store. They usually have at least a couple of varieties suited to your local conditions. An old standby is "Clemson Spineless", available throughout the U.S.

The following is a list of some places that sell okra seeds. I haven't tried most of them, so this is mainly FYI.

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Okra Events

Second Annual Okra Festival - Burkville, Alabama

Barbara Evans writes:

"I just wanted to tell you about the second annual Okra Festival in Burkville, Alabama on the last Saturday of August (every year). We are a tiny rural community with the kind of gumbo soil that can really grow okra. During the festival, which is held at Annie Mae's Place, a rural art and history center, we eat all kinds of okra, see it growing and you can even buy okra art! Sometimes we have music, usually the blues, and neighbors have yard sales. It is a relaxing, hot, outside day. We fry fish and sit under trees and talk.

Burkville, Alabama is close to Montgomery, Alabama in historic Lowndes County, off Highway 80 between Selma and Montgomery, home of the 1965 Voting Rights March. So folk get civil rights and okra rolled up together!

It isn't just the okra. Okra is the people's vegetable, as I see it, grown in places where there is still a sense of community. If it is hot enough to grow Okra, you can't rush around at high speed. You've got to slow up and pick the okra!"

There isn't much I can add to that, except that I hope I can visit there some day. You can call Barbara at (334)-284-0555 if you'd like more information.

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Okra Pictures

Click here for more okra pictures

     Red okra picture by Wayne
The following two pictures of okra blossoms provided by Gary Borges who adds that they make a good wallpaper for computers. (Click on either picture for a larger view).

click for larger view   click for larger view
The following picture of wild hibiscus (Abelmoschus moschatus 'Oriental Red', provided by David Petersen) shows its close relationship to cultivated okra. (Click on the picture for a larger view).

click for larger view
The following picture of grilled okra is provided by Travis Hall to illustrate his Grilled Okra recipe (see above).

Click to enlarge

Click here for more okra pictures

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Okra Crafts

I was not aware that okra could be used in crafts, but then Suzanne Ivester set the record straight by sending the following two pictures and an explanation of how they were made:

"I did succeed in drying some okra by using silica gel and a microwave oven. I then painted the okra and used it in combination with polymer clay to make decorative lizards. They look especially good affixed with Velcro to a vertical surface (like a door or window frame, a mirror, or a flower pot). I "debuted" the okra lizards at a craft show this month, and they were quite popular."

You can see more at her web site: http://www.picturetrail.com/HEDGEAPPLECRAFT

click for larger view   click for larger view
(click on either picture for a bigger view)

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Okra Links

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If you have any questions or comments about this page, please send them by e-mail to me (Ravi Kochhar) at kochhar@physiology.wisc.edu.
This page last modified on : Oct. 26, 2010