I like to try new and odd vegetables and 3 years ago I got around to trying OKRA, Abelmoschus moschatu. Most experiments are fun but rarely hugely successful the first year. Not so Okra. The first year I had a reasonable and delicious harvest. The taste is easy to learn to love, the texture however, is surprising. Okra, also known as lady fingers, produces a mucilage when cooked that has been described by some people as slimy. (Not by its fans obviously)
Okra Slime is fascinating in its own right. Here is my page on Okra Mucilage. I made a batch and played with the okra goo to see what it could do.
This slippery thickening property is what has made it such a star in the Cajun and New Orleans cuisine. It is the "GUM" in the numerous GUMBOS that have made Cajun cooking so famous.
Here is a link to a Southern Cookbook: Okra: a Savor the South® cookbook (Savor the South Cookbooks)
I've used it as a steamed veggie. I've also added it to curries where it thickens the broth and adds flavour. It's great in Chicken Gumbo too. Stir frying it cooks it while reducing the production of slime.
Growing Requirements of Okra
Starting your Okra
This relative of the hibiscus, is a warm weather plant that likes it hot. This means that either you have to wait till the soil has warmed up before planting outside, or, you have to start indoors and transplant them when the weather has warmed up. They are sensitive to cold and if the temperature is too cold for extended periods they will simply refuse to grow and might suffer from wilt, in particular Fusarium wilt.
In different years, I've tried both starting indoors and then setting out and waiting till the weather warms up before planting, (because I was in Texas building Saturday Night Specials in Port Aransas and could not start early).
Results were about the same. The plants I started early were slow in recovering from the transplanting but did well. The plants I planted directly outside were slower in coming up but were more vigorous and caught up and did well. My season was very warm so in this case no benefit from starting early. In a colder year I think the plants started early would have been the better ones.
Another alternative is to plant directly in place and use a growing tunnel or tents until the weather has warmed up. Experts like to say that nights should not dip below 60 degrees.
Seeds are quite large and like to be planted at a depth of about an inch. If you start them indoors, they like to have a pot that will accommodate them and not crowd the roots too much as they grow. There is no particular problem in germinating and within 2 weeks you should see a good number of little plants peeking out of the soil.
The seedlings have a taproot that needs to be handled very carefully and not broken when setting out. This is hard to do if the roots have worked themselves out of the pot because they were crowded. If you can get some of the extra tall pots, I bought some blueberry bushes in some, then the taproot can develop and not risk being disturbed when you transplant.
Okra prefers a soil that is mostly neutral but can happily tolerate a range 6.5-7.5 without too much trouble.
The little Okra seedlings are not fast growing and will take their time getting their second leaves and putting on some height. Not to worry, keep them warm, give them lots of light and wait till the weather warms up.
In my case, my biggest problem is keeping the squirrels and other animals out of the garden raised beds. Squirrels like to dig and hide seeds, skunks and others like to go dig for worms, and the cats like to dig in the soil looking for voles or just digging because it feels good.
When I plant or transplant anything I put a whole lot of branches over them to sort of protect them. Blood meal helps with the mice and squirrels, they don't like the smell.
Okra can grow quite tall. Some of my plants have reached almost 6 feet by the end of August in Canada and I'm sure they will get some more height. You want to give them 12-18 inches apart at least. I'm getting a pod every 2 days per plant.
Once you start getting pods you have to keep a keen eye on them because they grow fast and you want to pick them before they get bigger than 4 inches. They get tough and stringy after that.
Okra buds and Flowers
Okra flowers are beautiful with yellow creamy petals and a brown/purple velvety inside. The flower opens in the morning and by evening has closed up. The petals fall off leaving a small pod behind. This pod quickly grows to 8-10 inches if you don't pick it.
During warm spells you'll get a flower every morning.
Spiness or Smooth Varieties are not so Irritating.
Some varieties can have little hairs that are quite irritating. I'm not very sensitive but if you tend to be then get spineless or smooth varieties.
You will want to add lots of compost and as it is quite fast growing and productive, it likes some form of fertilizer. I use a 10-10-10 in the garden as well as any organic one I can lay my hands on. My Okra thrives on a seaweed and marine compost.
Okra likes well drained soil with a mostly neutral range of PH. and lots of organic matter.
Okra likes a regular watering and 1 inch per week is recommended but it is wonderfully drought resistant and will still do well with reduced water.
Okra Pests and Problems
Okra's main enemy is cold. It will be sluggish and may wilt if conditions are too cold.
Okra are fairly tough but some pests can affect them. One pest that affects many plants including Okra is root knot nematodes.
Root Knot Nematode
This is a small worm like creature that thrives in warm soil and that infects many plants including sunflowers and okra. The small nematode burrows into the root and parasitizes the okra plant reducing yields. The populations can build up in one spot if not controlled.
Control is best if a multi faceted approach is taken. Once a plant is infected there is not much you can do except trying to keep your plants as well fed and watered as possible and hope they still produce.
- Don't plant your okra in the same spot every year. Instead rotate the okra bed to avoid a build up of the nematode population. Avoid areas that have had plants that are susceptible to the nematode such as peppers, potatoes, sunflowers. Since the nematode parasitizes many plants it is difficult to do this. If possible plant an area in marigold for a season if you suspect the presence of the nematodes. If possible plant a okra bed in an area that has had grass for a few years and is newly prepared.
- Plant varieties that are more resistant to root knot nematodes such as: Clemson Spineless and Long Green Smooth. There is no Okra resistant to all varieties of nematodes so planting more than one type of Okra might help. This Abstract lists cultivars they tested that are most resistant. These come from Asia but no single okra variety is immune. Hybrids often fare better.
- Companion planting helps and inter-spacing your Okra with marigolds, onions and aromatic herbs sometimes can be quite effective. I have basil, marigolds and onions in the bed under the okra.
- Any bed that has had root knot nematode can benefit from laying fallow and being turned over several times over a season to expose the nematodes to sunlight. Solarization also helps control the nematodes by heating the top 5-6 inches of soil and killing them.
- Make conditions as good as you can with good fertile soil, enough water and mulch. This will encourage your plant to grow as best it can and produce a good crop before the bad guys get to it.
Nematocides exist but since I grow a pesticide free garden I have no experience with this.
Okra can be attacked by a few of the usual pests such as Japanese beetles, aphids, corn earworm and stink bugs. I mostly get little snails and the occasional Japanese beetles that I pick off.
The ants seem to like the flowers but they have not caused any trouble. I've read that fire ants can damage the flower so it drops off before setting fruit. I don't have fire ants so I've no experience with them.
Medicinal and Other Uses of Okra
Because of the thick mucilage that is produced when the plant is cooked, Okra has been used for many conditions where a soothing covering is helpful. It often appears in sore throat and stomach remedies. Here is a list of medicinal uses of Okra. This is offered as information and entertainment. I have not researched all the uses.
Okra slime has been tried as a glue and they claimed it worked well. When I tried I had no success. It has also been researched as a safe way of diluting medical drugs for slow release. Many people claim it is useful for the skin too.
One use that has been researched is okra's high fibre content and ability to bind and eliminate cholesterol. It is not a wonder drug but it works. Here is a link to a youtube video which shows another feature of OKRA, It's ability to bind bile acids and reduce colorectal cancer.
Complex carbohydrate can help stabilize sugar absorption and help regulate diabetes. Okra has been useful in this.
It has also shown some antibacterial activity in vitro
Okra freezes well. Blanch the pods for a few minutes to stop enzyme action, 3-4 minutes. Cool the pods in cold water and either freeze the whole pods or cut to whatever size you want. Put in freezer bags and freeze. If you want individual servings, freeze on parchment paper on a baking sheet so they don't touch and once frozen place in bags.
You can cook and season them first then freeze them.
Dried Okra has many fans. It is one of the ways of avoiding the slime while still enjoying Okra.
After cleaning and drying the okra, either slice them or keep them whole. Cover lightly with vegetable oil and sprinkle with salt and cayenne. You can use any spice you like really. Use a dehydrator or spread on a wire rack in a low oven (150 degrees F) for 12 or so hours, turning occasionally until crunchy. Keep in a closed container.
Like many vegetables, okra pickles well. There are many recipes out there. Here is an HGTV okra pickle recipe but you can adapt your favourite one. As long as the vinegar/water/salt ratio is there your pickle will be safely preserved. If you don't break the okra then slime will be reduced.
This information is for general knowledge and entertainment. I have no direct knowledge of okra being used for medicinal purposes and cannot guarantee that it works. See your doctor if you are sick. Okra is not a magic bullet.