Star of David okra has a distinctive, strong flavor and can grow 10 feet tall.
PHOTO: DAVID CAVAGNARO
Learn how to grow, harvest and preserve okra with this helpful guide.
"Wow!" a recent visitor exclaimed. "Those are pretty
enough to grow in a flower garden." She was right. With its
elegant hibiscus-like flowers and spiky pods, okra is as
showy as any edible plant can be. The tall plants look
great in the garden, and the dried seed pods are often used
in floral arrangements. The young pods are the part you
eat; they have a tender, chewy texture and earthy green
Call it gumbo, bamya, lady's fingers, bhindi,
quingombo or a half-dozen other names, okra is an
annual vegetable usually thought of as a Southern plant.
Reflecting its host of common names, okra even has two
scientific names: Abelmoschus esculentus and Hibiscus
How to Grow, Harvest and Preserve Okra
A basic ingredient in the Cajun dish filé gumbo,
okra is actually much more versatile. It can be breaded and
fried, steamed, baked, grilled, stir-fried, pickled, or
used in numerous soups and stews.
Originating in Africa, okra is thought to have been brought
to America by slaves, along with that other Southern
staple, cowpeas (aka black-eyed peas). In colonial days it
was more universally popular than now and was being sold in
Philadelphia markets as early as 1781. In his classic 1863
book, Field and Garden Vegetables of America,
Fearing Burr lists four varieties, which indicates okra was
a widespread market crop by the middle of the 19th century.
As recently as 1998, there were 43 varieties being offered
by commercial seed houses, according to the Seed Savers
Exchange's Garden Seed Inventory.
Depending on variety, okra grows from 2 feet to as much as
10 feet tall, and usually produces green pods and yellow
flowers with purple centers. But there are many variations
on this theme, including plants whose stems, foliage and
pods range from burgundy to scarlet. My favorite is an
heirloom variety called "Betty's White," which produces
ivory flowers with claret centers and white to very
As the plant matures, a single flower forms in the crotch
between branches and the stems of leaves. These flowers
last only one day and are immediately followed by pods.
Unharvested, the pods can grow as long as 10 inches. Okra
prefers hot weather, but it's a misconception that it
requires a very long growing season. Some varieties will
begin forming pods just 50 to 60 days after planting. If
your hot summer season is short, be sure to use one of
these early-yielding varieties, such as "Annie Oakley,"
"Dwarf Green Long Pod," "Blondie," "Burgundy" or "Clemson
Spineless." Once the plants start setting pods, they will
continue doing so until frost.
Okra will grow in any well-drained garden soil in full sun.
The soil should be worked 8 to 10 inches deep to promote
strong root growth, and compost or organic fertilizer
should be worked in. Most okra growers sow seeds directly
in the garden. Plant the seeds an inch deep and 2 inches
apart, in rows 3 feet apart, a few weeks after all danger
of frost has passed. Once sprouted, the plants should be
thinned to about 15 inches. Alternatively, plant three to
five seeds in hills 15 inches apart. When the plants are 3
or 4 inches tall, thin the hills to the single strongest
plant in each hill.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, okra can be started
indoors. I start it in flats, then repot the young shoots
into newspaper pots. These in turn are transplanted after
all frost danger has passed, being careful to not disturb
the roots. Growers in short-season climes might consider
this technique to assure a crop.
Okra should be cultivated to keep weeds down. Hand pull any
weeds very close to the stems to avoid damaging roots. The
plants produce strong stems, and staking is usually not
needed. Okra is fairly drought tolerant, and watering every
seven to 10 days is more than adequate.
Harvesting and Preserving Okra
Okra pods should be picked when they are 2 to 3 inches
long. (Larger pods will be tough and fibrous.) Often this
means harvesting every two days to assure tender pods. Some
okra varieties have short, hairy bristles that can cause
itchiness and a possible rash, so wear gloves when
harvesting the pods. (These hairs lose their prickliness
when cooked.) Pods keep well in the fridge for up to three
days. After that they start to discolor and deteriorate
Three to four plants produce more than enough okra for the
average family. Excess pods can be frozen, or you can make
okra pickles. (See the recipe for "Hot Pickled Okra," at the end of this article.) To freeze,
just blanch the whole pods in boiling water for three to
four minutes. then immediately cool them in an ice water
hath. Freeze them in plastic bags, squeezing out as much
air as possible before sealing.
To save seed from okra, let a few pods on each plant go
unharvested. They'll grow large, then start to dry. If
possible let them dry fully on the plants. If not, once the
drying has started, take them indoors and let them dry
thoroughly. Even fully mature green pods can be dried
indoors. The seeds shell easily from the dried pods.
Although okra flowers are perfect and self-pollinating, the
showy blooms are very attractive to bees, and different
varieties readily cross-pollinate. To guarantee seed
purity, varieties should be separated by at least one mile,
or other isolation techniques — such as bagging
individual flowers — should be used. When stored under
ideal conditions, okra seed will remain viable for about
Okra Seed Sources:
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Hot Pickled Okra Recipe
3 1/2 pounds small okra pods
4 cloves garlic
2 small hot peppers, halved
3 cups water
3 cups vinegar
1/3 cup canning salt
2 teaspoons dill seed
Pack okra firmly into four clean pint jars. Put a garlic clove and half-pepper in each jar. Combine water, vinegar, salt and dill. Bring to a boil. Pour hot liquid over okra, leaving 1/4-inch head space. Remove air bubbles. Adjust caps. Process 15 minutes in water bath.