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Missouri Environment & Garden


David Trinklein
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 882-9631

Okra: Love It or Hate It

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

Published: July 1, 2013

There are many “gray areas” in life—situations where clearly it is not one thing or the other but (more often than not) something in between. Such is not the case when it comes to people’s opinion of okra. Lovers of okra point toward the unique flavor it adds to savory dishes and the many ways it can be used. Those on the opposite side of the debate fail to see how anyone can eat something so (for the lack of a better term) slimy. Thus, when it comes to okra, people either love it or hate it.

Okra (also known as Lady Fingers) goes by the scientific name Abelmoschus esculentus and is a member Malvaceae (or mallow) family. Well-known members of this family include cotton, cacoa and ornamental hibiscus species. Okra’s place-of-origin is uncertain. Most evidence suggests it came from the area of Africa today occupied by Ethiopia, although some authorities believe it originated in Southeast Asia.

By the 12th and 13th centuries it was widely used by the Egyptians, Spanish Moors and Persians. The plant spread around the shores of the Mediterranean and, later, eastward. Okra most likely was introduced into the Americas by ships carrying slaves from Africa. By 1658, its presence was documented in Brazil and by the early 18th century it made its way into the southeastern United States, most likely entering at New Orleans.

Okra is tall growing, warm season vegetable that needs full sun exposure in a well-drained soil. Poorly drained soils result in poor performance most often due to root-related diseases. Prior to planting, about one pound of a complete fertilizer such as 10-20-10 should be applied per 100 square feet of garden area. Additionally, two sidedressings of fertilizer at the rate of about three ounces per 100 feet of row beginning when plants are six to eight inches tall and again two to three weeks later is recommended. Since okra is quite sensitive to salts, the application of too much fertilizer can lead to root damage.

Okra is a facultative short-day plant meaning blooming will be enhanced when it is exposed to 11 hours of daylight or less. Most okra is direct-seeded into the garden after the soil temperature has warmed to slightly over 60 degrees F. Since okra seeds have a hard coat, germination is enhanced if the seeds are soaked over-night in water. Sow seeds at the rate of about two ounces per 100 feet or row in rows that are 36 to 48 inches apart. Cover seeds to a depth of about one-half inch. After seedlings have emerged and become established, thin to allow about 12 inches between plants. Recommended varieties for Missouri include Annie Oakely II, Clemson spineless and Lee (a dwarf variety).

Alternatively, okra transplants can be started about four to six weeks prior to seeding time in the garden. This allows for early and continuous production of okra.

Okra is drought tolerant but does appreciate adequate amounts of moisture. Therefore during dry periods apply one to two inches of water per week. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation systems work well for this purpose.

Okra has relatively few pests. Weed control is important since okra occupies the garden for an extended period of time and uncontrolled weeds can reduce productivity. Aphids may attack young plants early in the growing season. Insects with piercing-sucking mouthparts such as stinkbug occasionally feed on young pods causing them to become misshapen. Japanese beetles have become a recent problem and can cause significant leaf damage in a fairly short period of time.

Root diseases (e.g. damping off) associated with wet cool soils represent the biggest disease threat to okra. In southern parts of Missouri, root knot nematode can become problematic.

The biggest mistake made by most home gardeners when growing okra is to allow the pods to become too mature before harvesting. Okra should be harvested when seed pods are young, tender and fiber-free. For most varieties this is when pods are about two to four inches in length. Because of the rapid growth rate of okra, harvesting on alternate days is necessary to prevent pods from becoming overly mature. Okra does not store well. If attempted, storage should be in a paper bag in the warmest part of the refrigerator.

Love it or hate it, okra is a nutritious vegetable. A one-half cup serving contains only 18 calories and an excellent source of dietary fiber which has been linked to intestinal tract health. Okra contains significant amounts of vitamin C as well as vitamins A and K, calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, folate and antioxidants. Additionally, the mucilage contained by okra is said to bind cholesterol.

Okra trivia:

  • The name “okra’ probably was derived from the Niger-Congo group of languages
  • Okra seeds were once used as a substitute for coffee in the South
  • If pressed, okra seeds yield an edible oil with a subtle taste
  • Okra mucilage has a pharmaceutical use as a binder for the preparation of tablets
  • In eastern countries, a poultice of okra is used to reduce pain
  • Mature okra has been used in some parts of the world to produce rope and paper
  • A perfume call ambrette is made from the seeds of okra
  • A small town in Alabama holds an annual okra festival the second Saturday of August
  • The world record okra plant stood 19 ½ feet tall and had a stem circumference of 10 inches

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REVISED: July 1, 2013