Okra, Lady Fingers
In Yuma, Arizona farmers grow more lettuce than just about anywhere else in the world. But when summer comes, and no amount of shade or water can alleviate weeks on end of triple digit temperatures, there is only one crop that is grown there: okra.
In Tucson where it isn’t quite as hot, we can grow all sorts of crops in the summer, but okra is one of the least troublesome. And they provide much interest and use in the garden.
To get plants started, soak the round seeds overnight or even a tad longer before sowing directly into the garden bed. Most varieties you can plant about a foot apart, but some are larger, so pay attention to the eventual size noted on the seed packet and/or catalog you purchase your seed from.You can also get plant starters from your local plant nursery, if you are not yet accustomed to seed-growing. Make sure you put them on the north side of your garden beds so you don’t shade out your other plants. Or, use their shade with intention, and shade crops that benefit from a little summer break.
Okra grows fast in hot weather. In fact, in cooler climates gardeners need to use black plastic to heat the soil up more to get a good start on okra. It does best in an enriched garden bed, but is more tolerant than many plants of a wide variety of soils. Plants sometimes need to be staked, and make sure you prepare for how tall they get — plants will get about 3-7 feet tall depending on the variety.
A wide range of reactions come from okra as a food. Chances are, that reaction depends on your personal food history; if you have been exposed to southern cuisine, or you are just open to diverse food textures, you are more likely to love okra. However, those less exposed to okra find some recipes too mucilaginous. Okra fruits have a sliminess to them when cooked, do to a polar glycoprotein and an exopolysaccharide. The mucilaginous nature of okra fiber is very healthy for the colon, as it sweeps the walls much in the same way psyllium does. However there are many ways to prepare okra that don’t accentuate this trait, and are worth looking into if the sliminess is off-putting (recipes below).
Besides the fruits, the leaves are eaten like a spinach, and the seeds can be roasted and ground as a coffee substitute. There are some varieties, like Guarijio “Nescafe” from Native Seeds/SEARCH, that have been specifically selected for this purpose. That same variety also has gorgeous persistent woody pods that are quite decorative.
Harvest fruits when they are 2-3 inches long. The younger the pods, the more tender. They get woody if you leave them on the plant too long. If you can’t keep up with the bounty, keep a ziplock bag in the freezer and put pods in as you harvest them — the pods store wonderfully in the freezer. There is a nice purple variety that looks wonderful when grown, but don’t be disappointed with it in the kitchen: it doesn’t hold that purple hue when cooked.
You can also slice pods in half, or lengthwise, and dehydrate them in the sun or a kitchen dehydrator. These can be eaten directly as a snack or rehydrated for future use.
Oh, did I mention that okra has the same kind of flower as the hibiscus, which it is related to (family: Malvaceae).
Okra has a long and murky history. Nobody is absolutely sure of the origin of the plant. There are good arguments for South Asian, Ethiopian or West African origins. It is most likely a cultigen, as there are no known wild populations of the plant that are not naturalized introductions. Okra has a long history in African cuisine, and thus, pan-American — wherever slaves were taken, okra has developed as part of the cuisine. South Asian cuisine also sees heavy use of okra, and there are many wonderful, spicy okra recipes from that region. Don’t confuse real okra for Chinese okra or spice sponge, which is related to cucumber or luffa (Luffa actangula), and is a wonderful crop that we’ll discuss in a future article.
Native Seeds/SEARCH has 4 varieties, specifically selected in our region, including that gorgeous Guarijio “Nescafe” variety mentioned above, but you must be a member to get that particular variety (and if you live in Arizona, and you garden, you must ask yourself, “Why am I not yet a member of Native Seeds/SEARCH?”)
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has an incredible selection of 39 okra varieties!
There is an excellent book on okra by Southern cuisine guru Virginia Willis on okra. I recommend it for further reading.