Published on 05/06/96

Okra: Historical, Versatile, 'Southern' Veggie

Okra shines in the garden.

You've probably seen pictures of Hawaiian girls with large hibiscus blossoms tucked behind their ears. Well, okra blossoms aren't quite as showy as those, but they're in the hibiscus family.

They're among the most beautiful blooms in the vegetable garden, too. They're ivory to creamy yellow with deep reddish-purple throats.

They bloom for only a day. By sundown, okra flowers are wilted, whether or not they've been pollinated.

If it's sunny and good bee-buzzing weather, you'll see tiny okra pods underneath the wilted flowers. Not all will be pollinated, but since okra will blossom for a long time, you should get a sizeable harvest.

Asia -- central to southern, to the best of my research -- gave us okra. It grows wild in the upper Nile region, too, and was used in northern Africa for centuries. In fact, okra is an African word.

Trading ships brought okra to this country, and it quickly found favor as a crop and an ingredient in French and Creole cooking in Louisiana.

Okra is a tasty, important ingredient in many foods, especially Creole dishes.

I would never think of making shrimp gumbo without adding okra about 30 minutes before serving. Gumbo, from the word "gombo," means okra, a natural thickener for soups and stews.

Okra is often stewed with tomatoes, deep-fried, pickled, boiled or steamed and served with butter, as well as eaten raw, fresh from the garden.

Some folks don't like the gummy quality okra has when it's boiled or steamed. It seems more popular when combined with other vegetables, fried or pickled.

I've made coffee out of okra seeds. Just let some pods ripen on the plant, collect the seeds when the pod ribs have opened, and roast and grind the seeds.

Perk this "coffee," using more of the ground okra than you would regular coffee. Although I'll never see "Okra Java" at a trendy coffee house, who knows....

For history buffs, okra coffee was used during the Late Unpleasantness with the North when blockades were in place and coffee wasn't available. W.N. White, in Gardening for the South (1858), said, "I think it is not very likely to supersede."

Still other people take advantage of the versatile okra by grinding the dried seeds and mixing them with cornmeal to make bread.

Because okra grows best in hot climates, it's one of those vegetables considered a "Southern" crop. It is true that the southern parts of our country have the long, hot growing seasons okra needs to bear really well, but you can grow it anywhere.

Because okra can't tolerate frost and doesn't like cool weather, north Georgia yields may not be as high as from plants grown farther south. But you can make up for that by simply growing a few extra plants.

Some gardeners prefer to either buy transplants or start their own indoors to plant outside when the weather and ground have warmed enough.

Okra has a reputation for being hard to transplant. It has a very long tap root, and when it's broken, the plant doesn't recover.

Most gardeners sow their okra seeds right in the ground at the proper time. The proper time is after the soil is warm. Really warm. Okra will just sit there and may rot in cold soils. Remember -- it is tropical.

But if you want to, and are willing to take a little extra care of the long tap, you can successfully transplant okra.

All your efforts can be ruined by "damping off," a fungus disease that attacks emerging seedlings, if you don't take steps to prevent it.

To prevent damping off, treat seeds with a fungicide you can buy at a garden supply store. Follow the directions on the package.

Wayne McLaurin is a professor emeritus of horticulture with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.