Oh My Okra

Community Contributed by Glenn I. Teves, UH County Extension Agent

Okra is one of those vegetables you either like or you don’t. One of the few vegetables in the hibiscus family, okra loves the heat, and is very comfortable in the dog days of summer.

Okra is believed to have originated in an area of Africa that includes the Ethiopian highlands and eastern Sudan. The word ‘okra’ is believed to be of Nigerian origin. Okra was introduced to Arabia by Muslims when they invaded in the seventh century. Around the 12th and 13th century, the Spanish Moors and Egyptians carried it with them around the Mediterranean and as far southeast as India. This vegetable soon flourished throughout North Africa and the Middle East where the pods were cooked and the seeds toasted, ground and served as a coffee substitute. Oil extracted from the seeds was used to produce cooking oil.

Okra eventually made its way to North America via Louisiana around the 1700s, where it became an important part of French-style or Cajun cuisine. Okra is also known as lady’s fingers and gumbo, quingombo, a variant of the Portuguese word, quillobo. Two favorite southern U.S. dishes include deep fried okra first dipped in corn meal batter, and gumbo – a hearty soup comprised of meat or seafood, celery, bell pepper and onion, with okra used as a thickener.

The Spanish are believed to have introduced it to the Philippines where it became part of their cuisine. On Molokai, okra is an essential ingredient in Pinakbet, a Filipino stew that includes many other vegetables including eggplant, long bean, bittermelon and pumpkin.

Okra should be picked when it’s young and tender, and before it gets stringy. Usually, okra is harvested when pods are two to three inches long, but round-podded okra varieties remain tender at larger pod sizes up to six inches or more. Some of the round-podded types include Philippine Lady Finger, Louisiana Green Velvet, Emerald, Stewarts Zeebest, Peter Pan, Greeny Splendor, and others. Most okra varieties have angular pods, and there are also varieties with red or burgundy pods. Indigenous African varieties can grow to 12 feet tall, with a base stem of four inches in diameter.

Okra plants have spines or thick hairs on the plant and pods that can cause skin irritation, so gloves and long sleeved shirts are worn when harvesting pods. Okra is a fast grower and should be picked every two to three days to maintain tender pods. Remove oversized pods from the plants since they sap the plants energy by making seeds. In the South, pods are even dried for later use.

Pests include stink bugs, corn earworm, aphids, and rose beetles. Feeding activities of a microscopic eelworm called root-knot nematodes, which are microscopic eelworms, can cause roots to swell, affecting nutrient and water uptake. To overcome this problem, practice crop rotation with a nematode resistant crop such as Sunn Hemp, and don’t plant in the same area twice. Powdery mildew, a leaf fungus that looks like white powder on the leaves can also be a problem, but can be controlled with sulfur sprays. Okra prefers neutral soil with a pH of six or above. The key to disease and insect control is to grow a healthy plant. And it’s a good idea to save seeds so you’ll always have them when you need them.

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