Okra: Our Humble Hero

When I moved out of the city and into my little house in the farthest reaches of Travis County farm country, I was completely prepared for setting in my garden, posthaste. The Memorial Day flood postponed the implementation of any grand designs, but eventually, it happened: 10 beds, each 4 feet wide and 25 feet long, gently lifted and aerated with my broad-fork and imbued with rich organic cotton burr and dairy cattle compost. Obviously determined, yet still a greenhorn in my enthusiasm, I seeded one entire bed with okra seed. When I proudly told my new neighbors—who are both seasoned farmers and gardeners—they raised polite eyebrows and held their tongues. I soon learned why. 

Not only did I harvest enough okra to stock the freezers of all my friends and neighbors and then some, but I harvested enough to cook, pickle, freeze and can my own, to excess. I still have pounds and pounds of it, prepped and bagged in the bottom of the chest freezer. Okra is an extremely generous plant in its fruiting—a few plants are plenty for most families. And its flowers are sure to delight—they’re like hibiscus flowers, from the same mallow family, and grace the garden with bright pops of white, yellow and shades of pink. The trouble is that each beautiful flower makes an okra pod, and I had thousands of them.

A wonderful result of okra’s famed productivity is the wide variety of heirloom seed available. There are okra varieties in different colors, shapes and sizes—short and fat, long and thin, red or purple or practically any shade of green, and with spines or without—and heirloom varieties of okra have long been planted in this area. For example, the Hill Country Red variety has pink-red-tinged fruit (the Seed Savers Exchange suggests it’s an excellent pickling variety, so I intend to try it this coming summer); the Red Burgundy type produces a long, thin pod with deep burgundy coloration; and the Star of David variety—which when sliced crosswise, reveals a six-sided star inside—grows to a towering 7 feet and has purple coloration on its leaves.

It’s possible that okra might be the most sustainable food we can grow in our gardens in Central Texas, too. A native of West Africa, it’s both nutritionally rich and quite happy as a low-maintenance, dry-land crop—whatever falls from the sky is usually enough. It also thrives as a rotation crop because it digs deep taproots to feed itself—reaching nutrients far beneath shallow, hungry crops such as corn, spring wheat and some types of legumes. Because of this, I intend to follow my okra patch with peppers and tomatoes, which are notoriously hungry. Tomatoes and peppers also have deep root systems, so by leaving the roots of my okra plants in-ground after harvest season ends, new pathways become available for early tomatoes to dig deep and feed well. I also use okra leaves as mulch over the winter. And finally, okra plants also act as a trap crop for pests and antagonists and are naturally pest-resistant, as well.

Okra is a blessing to both the garden patch and the plate, but many confess to avoiding the fruit because of its dreaded slime (the mucilage surrounding the seeds). Though oft-maligned, that slime is really something magical: It serves as a natural thickener in soups and stews, and it’s a way to make hungry stomachs feel fuller when the rest of the meal is thin in substance. Even though I’m a fan of the slime, the secret to avoiding it is in the preparation of the okra. Parboiling the pods and then immersing them in an ice bath drastically reduces the slime factor by breaking down cell walls. Cutting the okra into rings and freezing it in serving-size bags also reduces the slime, as does cooking it in liquid for 20 minutes or longer, as in a gumbo or stew. And pickling is another remedy.

However it’s prepared, this often-misunderstood, yet easy-growing and gloriously versatile garden friend deserves a second look.