Okra is a flowering plant that is grown as an annual in most regions, though the species (Abelmoschus esculentus) is a perennial plant in the dry tropical regions where it is native. A member of the Mallow family (which also include hollyhock and hibiscus), okra is also sometimes grown as a landscape plant for its attractive flowers. However, it is usually grown as a vegetable crop for the edible seed pods that appear after the flowers bloom. These seed pods have a variety of cooking uses; they are especially useful for thickening stews because of their gummy mucilage.
Okra is a warm-weather vegetable that is common in southern gardens since it is extremely tolerant of extreme heat and drought conditions, but it can be grown nearly anywhere that has a warm season of two months or more. Oka is a very important food in dry, hot climates and conditions where other crops falter. In cooler climates, the seed pods are often smaller, but still very edible.
The okra plant has an upright branching growth pattern; the palmate leaves have five to seven lobes, and the flowers are yellow or white, often with purplish centers. The flowers give way to elongated seed pods, up to 7 inches long, which containing white seeds that fill a pentagon-shaped chambered structure.
Okra is generally planted from seed sown directly into the garden when the soil reaches 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The plants will take 50 to 60 days to produce seed pods that can be harvested. In regions with short growing seasons, the seeds may be started indoors, three to four weeks before the last frost date.
|Botanical Name||Abelmoschus esculentus|
|Common Name||Okra, gumbo, ladyfinger|
|Plant Type||Annual vegetable|
|Size||3–5 ft. tall; similar spread|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Needs||Moist, fertile, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Slightly acidic (6.0 to 6.8)|
|Native Area||Dry tropical regions of Africa and Asia|
|Hardiness Zones||Grown as an annual in zones 2 to 11 (USDA)|
|Toxicity||May aggravate inflammation in some individuals|
How to Plant Okra
Okra seeds are large and easy to handle. Some gardeners like to pre-soak the seeds the night before planting, but you should get good germination if you simply keep the soil moist until the plants break through.
Okra can be direct sown or started indoors and transplanted. Starting seedlings in peat pots will lessen transplant shock. Start indoor seeds 6 to 8 weeks before the transplant date. Wait until the weather is reliably warm, about two weeks after your last expected frost date, before transplanting outdoors.
If you are direct sowing, plant the seeds 1 inch deep and 4 to 8 inches apart. Space rows 3 feet apart. Thin to 18 to 24 inches, when seedlings are 4 to 6 inches tall, to give the plants room to branch. Crowding will result in thin plants with few fruits.
The plants keep producing pods throughout the summer, though in lessening quantities. Gardners in warmer climates can plant a second crop for harvest into the fall.
You'll have the strongest plants and the most pods if you plant your okra in full sun.
Okra does best in rich, well-draining soil. It's not particular about soil pH (6.5 to 7.5), but it won’t thrive in heavy, soggy soils.
Once okra plants are established, they can handle brief dry spells. For best yields, water well at least every seven to 10 days.
Temperature and Humidity
Okra plants love the heat. They kick into gear when temperatures reach 80 degrees and grow even stronger when it climbs above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. It excels in dry conditions but also grows perfectly well in humid summer climates.
If you have rich, organic soil, you won't need supplemental fertilizer. Side dressing with manure or foliage feeding with a seaweed/fish fertilizer will supply some extra fuel.
Is Okra Toxic?
Okra is generally considered non-toxic, but there are reports that the solanine found in okra and nightshade vegetables may exaggerate inflammation and joint pain in some people prone to arthritis. However, no concrete scientific evidence backs this up. The official recommendation from the Arthritis Foundation is to test this for yourself: If you notice increased joint pain after regularly eating okra or another solanine-rich food, then you may want to eliminate it from your diet. However, the Arthritis Foundation also notes that okra is very rich in nutrients, making it a worthy addition to most diets.
Okra varieties that are labeled spineless are less irritating to harvest, but be aware that they are not completely spine-free.
- 'Annie Oakley' is a hybrid plant that provides a nice yield. It grows 3 to 4 feet tall.
- 'Burgundy' is an heirloom variety that has deep reddish seed pods that lose some of the color with cooking. It grows to 4 feet.
- 'Clemson Spineless' is an heirloom plant known for its good flavor. It is a larger plant, growing 4 to 5 feet.
- 'Emerald' has especially long, 7- to 9-inch, seed pods. It is a spineless heirloom plant that grows to 4 feet.
- 'White Velvet' is another heirloom plant. It has tender white pods and grows to 5 feet.
The edible okra fruits—the seed pods—generally appear about 50 to 60 days after the seedlings sprout, immediately after the flowers bloom. Okra pods are best when picked young. The fruits are their most tender when they’re 2 to 4 inches long and as wide as a pinkie finger. Okra can grow in the blink of an eye and usually reaches this size within six days of flowering.
As okra pods get larger, they become stringy and tough. However, if growing conditions are good, even larger okra pods can still be tender and edible. Test for tenderness by snapping off the end of a pod. If it snaps, it hasn’t become tough and fibrous yet and should still be good for eating.
Okra plants are not pleasant to touch. Whether the spines are pronounced or hair-like, they are scratchy and irritating. Wearing gloves and long sleeves help. It’s also easier to harvest with a pruner rather than pulling with your finger and getting the spines in your skin.
As with most vegetables, okra is at its peak when freshly picked. Pods can be stored in the refrigerator for about one week, or they can be frozen, canned, or pickled.
Most okra varieties are open-pollinated, and pods left on to mature and dry can be harvested for their seeds, which can be stored and replanted the following spring.
Common Pests and Diseases
Okra is relatively problem-free, and most problems affect only the leaves, not the pods. Aphids and stink bugs may attack the plants. Keep an eye out and spray them off with water or remove by hand before the problem grows.