Heirloom Okra Plant Varieties
Learn how to grow the okra plant and the history of its heirloom varieties.
August 20, 2013
By William Woys Weaver
Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on heirloom okra plant varieties was taken from chapter 24, “Okra.”
To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom okra plant varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.
A Brief History of Heirloom Okra Plant Varieties
Okra is part of a larger migration of tropical plants that came to the New World in association with the slave trade. Thus it shares a common passport with such vegetables as the garden huckleberry, the watermelon, and the true goober pea (Voandzeia subterranea). Today okra is one of the symbols of southern cookery in this country, and also one of my favorite vegetables. I grow several varieties, and every year I try to add a few more to my collection. The many variant forms that exist in this species never cease to amaze me, whether in the shape of their pods or in the showiness of their flowers.
Okra is a first cousin to the hibiscus and cotton. Its culture in this country dates to the early eighteenth century, perhaps even earlier, for it was brought into the North American colonics from the West Indies. Its old name among gardeners and botanists was ketmia, since they treated it as a form of hibiscus. Two early areas of cultivation centered on New Orleans and Charleston. By the latter part of the eighteenth century, okra began appearing in gardens in the Middle States, especially in the region around Philadelphia, which at one time had a large Creole population. Okra was depicted in a number of still life paintings by members of the Philadelphia Peale family during the 1820s, so it is possible to form an impression of what those old varieties were like.
For one thing, their pods were thorny around the base. This thornmess, like that in old eggplant varieties, has been bred out over the past hundred years. Furthermore, the pods have undergone a gradual transformation in shape. The pods of the older sorts were long, narrow, and pointed, so pointed that the tips could inflict a nasty wound, especially once the pods had dried. They were also heavily ribbed, which caused them to toughen quickly. For these reasons, plant breeders have aimed for smaller, smoother pods that remain tender longer. These differences are quite noticeable when heirloom and modern okra varieties can be compared side by side.
Charles Parnell, writing about okra in Vick’s Illustrated Monthly Magazine (May 1888, 144) remarked perceptively that in spite of the claims of seedsmen, there were only two truly distinct varieties: the dwarf green, smooth-podded, 3 to 4 feet tall; and the long green, 5 to 6 feet tall, with long ribbed pods. Most of the okras that existed in the nineteenth century were only passing backyard variants of these two basic types, for okra adapts itself quickly to its environment, especially outside the tropics. Thus, dwarf types grow taller, tall heirloom varieties grow shorter, and many variations can appear on a plant-to-plant basis in the same garden. Any seed-saving activity must always keep this in mind, with a clear focus on plants that are true to type.
Buist’s Dwarf, a variety introduced before the Civil War, was originally 2 feet tall and designed for small gardens. It quickly adapted itself within a few generations of release, reverting in some ways to its more primitive ancestors. The only dwarf heirloom variety readily available today that closely resembles the okras depicted in old still-life paintings is the Early Dwarf Green, which produces long pods, as shown in the drawing. The plants range in height from 2 1/2 to 3 feet and produce abundantly throughout the season.
The tall or giant okra of Fearing Burr (1865, 606) is most similar to the heirloom variety now known as Cow Horn, which may grow as tall as 7 or 8 feet and produce 12-to 14-inch pods. It comes to crop in about 90 days and cuts an impressive figure in the garden no matter where it is planted. The pods, which are now widely used in dry flower arrangements, are best for culinary use when 5 1/2 to 6 inches long.
A variety known as Stubby, and one of my favorites, is both short, about 3 1/2 feet tall, and stumpy podded. It is best harvested for culinary purposes when 2 1/2 inches long. If allowed to mature much beyond that, the pods become tough and stringy. This variety is also the most day-length sensitive and will virtually shut down by early September, dropping flowers and leaves as though touched by frost.
Finally, there is a trilogy of late nineteenth-century okras that I call the “three velvets.” Green Velvet, Red Velvet, and White Velvet. White Velvet was first introduced by Peter Henderson and Company of New York. It was mentioned in How to Make the Garden Pay (1890, 220) as something quite different from the old standards. In pod, perhaps; but none of the velvets grow into the sort of bushes depicted in period seed catalogs. The woodcut of White Velvet is a compliment to an artist’s ability to create vegetables beyond nature. The heirlooms we grow today under these names have shifted away from their original, dwarf forms. Both the red and green sorts may grow as tall as 6 feet. They are also sensitive to cool weather. Of the three, Red Velvet is the most distinctive. It has a rose-colored flower and a red pod that retains its color after cooking. All of the velvets are characterized by soft, downy, thornless pods.
Growing okra is not complicated, and all of the heirloom varieties just mentioned can be treated the same way. Furthermore, aside from an occasional Japanese beetle, okras are fairly free of pests and diseases. But since okra is a tropical plant and cannot tolerate much cold, it is essential to start the seedlings indoors early in the spring and have them well established in individual pots before moving them to the garden. It was the old rule of thumb that okra could be planted once the corn was four inches tall. Okra likes warm ground, the richer the better, so it is best to wait until the ground is ready for beans. Planted too early, young okra plants may rot at the stems, especially if the weather turns unseasonably cool and rainy. Small seedlings are also highly vulnerable to birds, so it is better to plant okras after the seedlings have developed a number of leaves.
Dwarf varieties are usually planted about 2 feet apart, the larger sorts 3 feet. I plant them all about 2 feet apart and have not noticed any difference in pod size or productivity. Okra plants produce large fanlike leaves, but not many of them, so the plants can be crowded a little more than other types of tall-growing vegetables. The tall sorts will also require staking because they tend to be weak at the roots. Planted a little closer together, they seem to hold one another up better during high winds.
When to harvest the pods is a perennial question. An honest answer is that it comes with trial and error. Take a paring knife into the garden and test a few pods by slicing them in half. If the blade cuts through like soft butter, the pod is ready to cook. If there is resistance, as though cutting through a green apple, the pod is too mature. Blind people harvest the best okra because they can tell which pods are ready by gently pinching them. Finally, okra is a generous plant. Constant harvesting only encourages it to produce more.
For seed-saving purposes, I suggest setting aside a few specimen plants, all true to type, and let them run to seed. This will avoid worry about seed at the end of the summer when there are so many other chores to be done. Okra seed is ready to harvest when the pods have begun to turn brown and split along the ribs. Remove the seed — it is gray-black — and let it dry thoroughly indoors before storing. Keep in mind that while okra is self-pollinating, its attractive flowers are frequently visited by bees and other insects that can cause crossing. Different varieties must be isolated by one mile or allowed to flower and produce seed for only a limited period of time. Once one variety has produced a sufficient number of pods (10 is a good number), flower production can be halted by nipping them off before another variety comes to blossom. By staggering the times of flowering on my seed stock, I have managed to preserve seed purity without difficulty. This technique can be used with many other types of vegetables and is especially recommended where gardens are small.
Okra was eaten the year around in the past. During the summer it was prepared fresh, often stewed with tomatoes, dipped in batter and fried like a fritter, or added to gumbos. For winter use the young pods were pickled or sliced and dried like fruit. Dried okra was reconstituted by soaking it a few hours in boiling water, the same technique we use with beans. The unripe seeds were mixed into rice dishes or cooked alone like peas. When ripe, they were roasted and ground to make a type of ersatz coffee that was once popular among blacks in the South. When mixed with peanuts roasted and ground the same way, the beverage resembles chocolate.
Under the heading “Okra and the Science of Soups,” the Horticulturalist (1847, 118–21) published a recipe for a potage from New Orleans. It appears to be authentic, since it calls for filé, the ground, dried leaf buds of sassafras. Gumbo filé was as much a thickening agent as it was an exquisite flavoring, particularly well suited to crab or shellfish.
Take a [guinea] fowl of good size, cut it up, season it with salt and pepper, and dredge it with flour. Take the soup kettle, and put in it a tablespoon of butter, one of lard, and one of onions chopped fine. Next fry the fowl till well browned, and add four quarts of cold water. The pot should now, being well covered, be allowed to simmer for a couple of hours. Then put in twenty or thirty oysters, a handful of chopped okra or gumbo, and a very little thyme, and let it simmer [or a half an hour longer. Just before serving it up, add about half a tablespoonful of feelee powder. This soup is usually eaten with the addition of a little cayenne pepper, and is delicious.
It might be noted that the term dredge in this recipe means to dip or roll around in flour so that it completely coats the pieces of meat. A few crushed pods of the piment bec d’oiseau noir in the place of cayenne would give this heirloom recipe one final brushstroke of authenticity.
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Photos and Illustrations Courtesy William Woys Weaver.