Okra: What Is This Plant That Is Botanically A Cousin Of Cotton?

Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is an annual herbaceous plant cultivated for its edible seed pods in most tropical and subtropical locations of the world. It’s a warm-season crop identified by many names across the globe – okra, gumbo, ladies’ fingers, gombo or bamia, and bhindi are some of the many names that all refer to okra. But what the okra plant is? Continue reading this post, and you’ll soon find out all about it.

Okra belongs to the mallow family, Malvaceae. As a reminder, cotton, durian, and hibiscus are also members of this same family. Originating somewhere in the Eastern Hemisphere’s tropics, its popularity quickly spread to the Western Hemisphere since it’s easy to grow and produces abundant harvests.

An excellent source of Vitamin A and minerals, okras make a favorite addition to many dishes. It can be sauteed, pickled, or included in stews. Gumbo is a traditional soup-stew dish belonging to the southern United States with okra as the main ingredient to thicken the broth. Gumbo is, in fact, the Bantu word for okra.

Common NameOkra Or Ladies’ Fingers
Botanical NameAbelmoschus Esculentus
Plant TypeHerbaceous Annual
Size (Fully Grown)3 To 6 Feet (About 0,91 To 1,83 Meters) Tall
Sun ExposureFull Sun
Soil TypeFertile Loam Soil That Drains Well
Soil pH6.0 To 6.8
Flower ColorWithe, Yellow
U.S. Hardiness Zones2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, And 11
Native AreaTropical Regions Of Asia And Africa

How Many Different Okra Varieties Are There?

When growing okra, it’s important to choose varieties suited to your climate. Other than that, different types offer different pod sizes, colors, and textures, which can be just as essential to choose if you’re a picky person.

Yes, though you may only picture those green, hairy pods when you think of okras, there are some bright, exciting cultivars, too, including red, orange, and even white okras!

Some varieties are labeled spineless, making harvesting more manageable, but okras are never entirely free of spines. Here are some popular okra varieties:

  1. Emerald
  2. Burgundy
  3. Jing Orange
  4. Annie Oklay
  5. White Velvet
  6. Cajun Delight
  7. Star Of David
  8. Hill Country Red
  9. Clemson Spineless
  10. Louisiana Green Velvet
  11. Park’s Candelabra Branching

What Is The Disputed Origin Of Okra?

While okras are native to the Eastern Hemisphere, their exact origin is somewhat disputed. Many historians believe that it originated from Ethiopia. But some say it came from West Africa, and yet others associate its roots with South Asia. Hmm, this is getting interesting.

Okay, what we know is that the plant was cultivated by ancient Egyptians in the 12th century, who used the Arabic name, bamya. The name suggests that okra probably came to Egypt from Arabia, and the Arabians were introduced to it through Ethiopians.

From Arabia, the plant quickly spread to North Africa, throughout the Mediterranean Sea coasts, and eastwards. The crop came to the Americas in the 1700s with the slave ships from West Africa.

Soon after, it spread to Western Europe. By the mid-1700s, it was growing as far north in the United States as Philadelphia, and by the 1800s, it was an important crop throughout the southern US. Creoles in Louisiana learned the use of okra to thicken soups and stews from the African slaves, making gumbo, a soup-stew dish, an essential element of the Creole cuisine.

In the United States, it grows well in the southern part, which is evident by the vegetable’s regular use in Creole, Cajun, and southern recipes.

Today, okra is widely cultivated in the Middle East, Africa, India, Greece, Turkey, and the Caribbean, besides the Southern US.

What Does Okra Look Like?

Though the plant is a perennial, okras are often grown as an annual in most places. It’s a herbaceous plant that grows upright and is heavily branched.

Okras can grow from 3 to even 6 feet (about 0,91 to 1,83 meters) tall and have a similar width, but this depends on the variety, of course.

It generally takes about 90 to 100 days for the plant to mature from seeds. As you might expect, the types that grow faster are better suited to regions with shorter growing seasons.

This Is OKRA!
© Altin Osmanaj – stock.adobe.com

Leaves

When you look at the plant, you’ll often find different shaped leaves. But, the general design is palmate, with five to seven lobes and toothed margins. They’re dark green on the front side and gray on the back.

Flowers

During the flowering season, the plant will make a rather showy element in your garden. About 50 to 65 days after planting, okra will produce large white or yellow flowers. Those flowers’ diameter is approximately 1,5 to 3 inches (about 4 to 8 cm), with five petals, and they often have a purplish or reddish center.

Pods

In the end, these flowers will bear long seed pods. Each pod is a hairy capsule with a length of 4 – 10 inches (about 10 – 25 cm) and has a cross-section shaped like a pentagon. The pods of dwarf varieties can be a bit smaller, though.

The pod’s color ranges from light green, yellowish-green to dark green and even orange, red, and white for specific varieties.

Within the pods, you’ll find a chamber that holds several round white seeds. Once the plant matures, the seeds turn brown but remember to pick the pods while still young. Next, let’s discuss why.

The seeds are softest when they are about 2 to 4 inches (about 5 to 10 cm) long. As they grow to maturity, they’ll turn tougher and stringy, which means they aren’t suitable for eating.

Where Does Okra Grow Best?

Okras are fast-growing, warm-season crops that will thrive in your garden if you live in a temperate region. If you have a long, warm growing season, with 90 to 100 frost-free days, your veggie patch is perfect for growing okras! Here are some extra growing tips that you’ll find helpful.

What Temperature Is Optimal For Okra?

Okras are heat-loving plants, and they grow best when the temperatures are between 75 to 90°F (about 23 to 32°C). To plant the seeds, wait until the soil has warmed to at least 65°F (about 18°C). Seed germination will be even faster if the soil temperature is above 70°F (approximately 21°C).

If you want to start it earlier, like in cooler regions where the growing season is shorter, you can plant the seeds indoors in seed trays 3 to 4 weeks before the last frost date.

Soil And Sun

As with most warm-season crops, okras like to grow in full sun. Choose the sunniest spot in your garden, with well-draining soil that is rich in organic matter. What’s more, remember that the soil pH should be between 6.0 to 6.8 to ensure optimal growth.

Water And Fertilizing

Water the young plants regularly, especially during hotter months. Once they’re established, they can tolerate short dry periods, but an inch (about 2,5 cm) of water per week is ideal for making sure you get plenty of tender pods.

You can also side-dress the plants with compost or well-aged manure to replenish the soil nutrients and keep the growth at its best. Another way to achieve the same result is to apply a balanced vegetable fertilizer every month, but remember to follow the package instructions and avoid overfeeding.

Is It Safe To Eat / Consume Okras?

Okras are rich in Vitamin A, antioxidants, folates, and plenty of other nutrients. Besides, they’re low on calories, making them a healthy addition to your table. Let’s find out if you’ll need to avoid eating okras or track their consumption if you have some common medical condition.

Pregnant And Breastfeeding Women

Okras are safe for pregnant and nursing women. Doctors tell women to increase their folate intake during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and okra offers a fair share.

Children

Okras can be stringy and tough for babies and may even pose a choking hazard. You can include cooked okra in their diet, with the seeds removed when your kids are 6 to 9 months old.

People With Allergies

Okra isn’t a common allergen. But, if you’re allergic to cottonseed oil or meal, or althea tea, you’re likely allergic to okras too. Symptoms can appear on touching or consuming the vegetable. Itchiness, hives, nasal congestion, dizziness, swelling around or inside the mouth are common signs of food allergies.

People With Diabetes

Okras, being rich in dietary fibers and antioxidants, can be an excellent addition to people’s diet with diabetes. Plus, it can also help manage your blood sugar levels.

Pets

Okras are a safe treat for your pets, as long as you offer them in small quantities and not every day. But, since they contain a toxin called solanine, just like potatoes and eggplants, they should only be offered in small amounts. Why? Well, because pets are more sensitive to such toxins than humans.

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