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Okay with Okra

By Audrey Stallsmith

Abelmoschus esculentus

Okra is the closest thing to nylon I’ve ever eaten.  It’s like they bred cotton with a green bean.

Robin Williams

My father relishes a mix of tomatoes, corn, and okra, his version of gumbo.  Down south, they often add chicken or shrimp to that mix, but Dad remains satisfied with just the vegetables .

The furry tapering green seed pods of Abelmoschus esculentus, okra sometimes is called ladies’ fingers.  If the lobe-leafed plant wasn’t already consigned to the vegetable patch, it would be attractive enough for the flower garden instead, unfurling maroon-centered pale yellow blooms which prove its ties to the hibiscus family.  And Robin was right that okra is related to cotton.

Gumbo supposedly derives its name from a corruption of one of the African names for the plant—quingombo--and okra from another--okwuru.   So the vegetable probably originated near Ethiopia and traveled to this country with slaves. 

It has a mucilaginous texture which unkind people call “slimy,” but which also makes it so ideal for thickening soups that southern stews took on its name.  However, during seasons when okra isn’t available, cooks often rely on the powdered sassafras leaves called file instead.

Since only one okra plant sprouted for us during our overly wet summer this year and hasn’t yet produced pods, I recently bought a few in Wal-Mart.  They seemed a bit discolored, so maybe it wasn’t good growing weather down south either.  Keep in mind  that cooking okra in ironware also will discolor it. 

If you raise the plants in your garden, you’ll need to harvest the pods while they are tender and their seeds still white.  They turn tough and stringy fast, and I suspect Robin just got some of the too-far-along ones.  The flavor of “good” okra has been compared to a cross between asparagus and eggplant.  If you have allowed the pods and seeds to become hard, you reportedly can roast and grind those seeds to make coffee.

Although okra plants grow to six feet or more down south, they don’t have time to get that tall here in Pennsylvania.  However, I have raised a decorative relative called Abelmoschus manihot which does tower and reportedly is one of the most nutritious greens available.  You can find my article on Abelmoschus varieties at the following link:

Abelmoschus Abloom

Okra  doesn’t quite reach those heights, but it is rich in fiber as well as Vitamins C and K and manganese.  Not to mention that it tastes much better than okay when mixed with fresh sweet corn and tomatoes this time of year! 


Abelmoschus esculentus Image is by A. Stahl from Etudios sobre para la flora de Porto-Rico, couresy of