Okra: A Summer Tradition With a Past
While summer is the traditional season of vegetable gardening, there’s no doubt that gardening in a Sandhills summer is a challenge. The droughty, sandy soils don’t hold water and nutrients well. No matter how much rain we get, in three days without rain we’re in a drought again. It’s very hot. Very. Hot. The sandy soil both absorbs and reflects the sun, making for a soil surface that can burn. While many of our summer vegetables certainly need the warmth of summer, during the dog days of 95 degrees, tomatoes and other fruiting vegetables struggle. Leafy greens go kaput. Sweet corn burns up. What’s a dedicated vegetable grower to do? Grow okra, young man.
Okra can handle our brutal summer heat. Hailing from Africa, okra was brought to the New World by a circuitous route. From Ethiopia, where the plant originated along the banks of the Nile, it was carried to the Middle East, then back to Africa to Egypt, where the word for okra is of Arabic origin. Eventually the plant makes its way across the Mediterranean and into Europe, then with French colonists to the New World where it became embedded in the cuisine of Louisiana. While not widely used in early colonial recipes, it was known. Thomas Jefferson grew it, and garden writers of the early 1800s mention several varieties in general use. In the plantation-era South, slaves made a coffee-like beverage with okra seeds.
Okra is in the Mallow family, along with its cousins ornamental hibiscus and cotton. The okra flower is quite ornamental itself. However it is the pod that people either love or hate to eat. “It’s tough”, “it’s slimy” are common complaints. When grown, okra should be picked while small, within just a few days after it develops from the pollinated flower. As it ages, the pods become tough, fibrous and inedible, although they can make interesting dried pods for flower arrangements or other craft projects. In addition, if pods are allowed to mature on the plant it will inhibit more pods from developing and reduce overall productivity. Okra thrives in warm temperatures; sow okra seed when soil temperatures are above 65 degrees. Well drained soil, high in organic matter, is ideal. The soil pH should be between 5.8 and 6.5. Okra tends to respond well to high phosphate nutrient levels, but is sensitive to high nitrogen fertilizer, which can result in more vegetative growth than flower and pod production. However, it can be helpful to supply additional nitrogen late in the season when blooms are concentrated in the top of the plant. Provide uniform moisture; irrigate in the morning so foliage is dry before evening, thus avoiding possible disease development. The critical period for moisture is during pod set and pod development. Weed control is important, especially when plants are small. Cultivation and the use of plastic or organic mulches will help with weed control. Common production pests include stink bug and corn earworm, both of which can damage pods. Aphids can also be a problem. If plants fail to thrive pull one up and check for galls on the roots: root knot nematode can be a serious issue for okra. Recommended varieties for North Carolina include Clemson Spineless, Annie Oakley II (a dwarf variety), Lee, Cajun Delight, and Emerald. Plants can be cut back hard in late summer to be rejuvenated for a fall crop. Cut back to 6-12 inches, then fertilize again to encourage new growth.
Okra is very nutritious: a cup of the vegetable provides 66 percent of the daily requirement of potassium, 35 percent of vitamin C, and 11 percent of vitamin B6, to name just a few nutritional benefits. The type of protein in okra has been shown to help reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease, as well as reduce the risk of certain types of cancer; because of its high fiber eating okra can help reduce obesity. Okra’s slimy reputation arises from mucilage, a compound of sugars and proteins in the plant. Mucilage is what makes okra a great thickening agent for dishes like gumbo and succotash. Okra is often breaded and fried, which also lessens the slimy-ness, but it doesn’t have to be deep fried to be slime-free and delicious. Cook okra quickly, in a frying pan on high heat with plenty of butter, salt and pepper to taste, for a delicious alternative to the breaded version.
If okra is new to you, or you’ve avoided it in the past, consider adding okra to your vegetable garden. It is a plant of great beauty, history, and health benefits just ready for you to discover!
The above article by Paige Burns, Horticulture Agent with N.C. Cooperative Extension in Richmond County, printed in the Extension@YourService column in the Richmond County Daily Journal on 5/31/2017.