During my career, I have done considerable research and written about okra, a southern vegetable.

Okra belongs to the mallow family with its close cousin cotton. The first recorded reference to okra was made by the Egyptians back in 1216. It arrived in the American colonies during the early 1700s, brought here either by slaves from Africa or early French colonists coming to Louisiana. It worked its way north and was found in Philadelphia in 1781.

Okra is sometimes called “gumbo,” although that name is associated with soups and other dishes containing okra.

The okra plant somewhat resembles its relative cotton and is a semi-woody, fibrous, herbaceous annual with an indeterminate growth habit that grows to a height of three to six feet. Leaf margins vary from slightly wavy to very deeply lobed. Flower buds appear in the axil of each leaf beginning above the six- to eight-leaf stage and develop into five large, showy yellow petals with a dark maroon- or royal purple-colored area at the base. Although okra is a self-pollinated crop, insects such as honeybees and bumblebees can affect cross-pollination.

The edible portion of the okra plant consists of the immature seed pods, which must be harvested while they are still soft and seeds are only partially developed. The color of immature pods varies from pale to dark green, red or purple. Pods may be ridged or smooth. The pods have a unique flavor and mucilaginous texture which some people find objectionable. Okra combines well with other vegetables, especially tomatoes.

Approximately 15,000 acres of okra are grown annually in the U.S., with production centered in Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas, California and Florida. Temperature and photoperiod interact to influence flowering. Flowering can be delayed at high temperatures and high night temperatures can increase plant height in most presently grown varieties. Temperatures above 68º F are needed for normal development and it is unable to tolerate temperatures below 59º for very long. At temperatures greater than 108º, flower abortion can occur.

The plant develops rapidly in areas to which it is adapted and requires only two months from planting to harvest of the first pods. If properly maintained, plants will continue to bear until frost, especially if the young pods are harvested promptly and none are allowed to mature.

Okra can be grown on a wide range of soil types, although a rich, well-drained sandy loam is optimum. The best soil pH for okra is 6.0 – 7.0. Fertilization should be based on a soil test to prevent excessive plant vigor and poor yields.

Okra. Photo courtesy of Rebecca A. Melanson, Mississippi State University Extension, Bugwood.org

Some of the more important varieties I have worked with are listed below:

  • ‘Clemson Spineless’ – a uniform spineless variety with medium dark green, ridged pods; 55 – 58 days to reach maturity
  • ‘Clemson Spineless 80’ – slightly taller than Clemson Spineless with a more open growth habit and medium green, ridged pods; 52 days to reach maturity
  • ‘Cajun Delight’ – the hybrid version of Clemson Spineless; 53 days to reach maturity
  • ‘Annie Oakley I’ – a hybrid, spineless dwarf variety with bright green angular pods; 53 – 55 days to reach maturity
  • ‘Annie Oakley II’ – a hybrid, spineless dwarf variety, with medium green angular pods; 48 days to reach maturity; out-yields Annie Oakley by 10% – 15%
  • ‘North & South’ – a hybrid spineless variety with darker pods than Annie Oakley; 46 days to reach maturity
  • ‘Emerald’ – a spineless variety with dark green, smooth, round pods; 58 – 60 days to reach maturity
  • ‘Lee’ – a spineless, semi-dwarf variety with deep, bright green, angular pods; 53 – 55 days to reach maturity
  • ‘Prelude’ – a new open-pollinated, spineless variety with very dark green, glossy, ridged pods; can be harvested when pods are longer than other varieties and still be tender; 50 – 53 days to reach maturity
  • ‘UGA Red’ – a new red pigmented plant that can be used as an edible ornamental

Okra has a hard seed coat and a 24-hour soaking in water will enhance germination and emergence, especially if planting in warm soils, but the seeds should be allowed to surface-dry before sowing. Rows are commonly spaced 28 – 39 inches apart. Seeds are planted 1.5 to two inches deep at a rate of four to six seeds per foot. Plants are thinned to eight to 12 inches between plants. This spacing requires 10 – 20 lbs. of seed/acre.

Okra for the fresh market should be planted as soon as soil temperatures rise above 60º. The optimum soil temperature for germination is 75º – 90º.

One way to reach the early market (when the price is normally highest for okra) is by using black plastic mulch, drip irrigation and three- to four-week-old containerized transplants which have three to four leaves. This can advance harvest by as much as 21 days and increase yields by over 3,000 lb./acre compared to bare ground.

Okra is transplanted on the plastic mulch in double rows 15 to 18 inches apart and spaced 12 inches apart in the row. Drip irrigation tape would be positioned in the center of the mulched bed and buried two to three inches deep. Okra is sensitive to moisture stress, especially at the flowering/pod filling stages. Drip irrigation can supply both moisture and nutrients while reducing disease pressure.

Okra pods reach marketable stage (approximately three to four inches in length) in four to six days, when the pods are tender and free of fiber. Almost all okra is hand-harvested, and okra should be harvested at least every second day – preferably every day – to ensure pods are of optimum size and quality. Okra for fresh market must be cut with a knife to remove them from the stem.

They are graded into three sizes: Fancy (pods up to 3.5 inches long); Choice (pods 3.5 – 4.5 inches long); and Jumbo (pods over 4.5 inches long but still tender). The practice of cutting off (cropping) the older leaves of the okra plant during harvest does not negatively influence future yields if the leaves being removed are not higher than the undeveloped pods.

It is suggested that picking crews wear soft cotton gloves to help minimize damage to the tender pods. In addition, most people are sensitive to the small spines on okra, and often get a rash, so to avoid this problem, pickers should wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.

Okra harvested in good condition has a satisfactory shelf life of seven to 10 days when stored at 54.5º and 90% – 95% relative humidity. In general, okra has the same storage requirements as green beans, cucumber, eggplant, peppers and squash. These products may be stored together without deleterious effect, but okra should not be stored with melons, apples or other produce that emits ethylene gas.

Okra is an excellent crop and one that I came to appreciate and enjoy when I was employed at North Carolina State University. I still finish my venison stew off with some okra to give it another flavor and thicken it.

You can contact me with feedback on my columns or ideas for future columns at wlamont@psu.edu.