Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is an edible green fruit and here in the U.S. is native to the southern states. Okra is cooked and eaten as a vegetable. Just wash the fruit, cut off the ends, cut the fruit into rounded slices and saute or fry, or add them to a stew or gumbo.
I was raised in central Florida, and we ate foods that would be considered pretty strange by today’s standards. Beef heart and tongue, and okra were among the strangest. My brothers and I learned, early on, that you had at least one bite of everything at the dinner table. If you wanted to eat more, help yourself. If not, okay, at least you tried it.
After leaving Florida for the snowy north when I was nineteen, it was many years before I tasted okra again. My parents had moved further south, near Lake Okeechobee, and when I took my son – just fourteen months old – to visit them, I found okra plants growing in their flower bed. My memories of the taste of okra were elusive, but the sight of it brought back reminiscences of childhood, and so I asked to pick some for dinner.
Battered with flour, salt and pepper and fried till tender, it turned out well. I felt this was one of those moments when a childhood memory turned out well all round. That is, until my hands and forearms started itching like crazy, and I found I had a reaction to okra touching my skin. I still eat okra on occasion. It’s been showing up in our upstate New York grocery stores. I just make sure not to touch it with my bare hands.
I’ve never grown okra myself, and the first thing I found out when researching the topic was that okra, like carrots, does not transplant well. That means don’t plan to start them in the house. (Tell that to my daughter and her two little ones. This spring they started carrots in the house, took great pleasure in watching them sprout, and then transplanted them to their outside garden. It had to be a fluke.)
To start your outdoor garden, for okra or any other vegetable, dig into the soil with a shovel or spade at least a foot deep. If you live in an area that is fairly warm year-round, your okra plants may reappear year after year. If you live in a colder climate, treat okra as an annual and plan to sow seeds each year. Pick a location that is receiving full-sun, all day long, and don’t worry about the soil being too hard to absorb water. Okra can stand heat and drought better than many plants.
Create mounds, or little hills, 12-24 inches apart, and sew several seeds in each mound. When the seedlings are about 3-inches tall, remove all but the strongest plant in each mound. Do not pull the plants; cut them at ground level. Okra grows 3-6 feet tall and is an attractive plant. The fruit – the seed pod – can be harvested in just over fifty days.
Now that I’ve done my research, I’ve found out that it’s not uncommon to have a skin reaction to the hairy outer surface of okra. Just in case, wear gloves and long sleeves when handling and harvesting yours.
For further information on growing okra, go to http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/v eggies/okra1.html.