Okra A Southern treasure

By By Gail Barton / horticulture columnist
July 18, 2004
Just last week, the incessant rains were all folks could talk about. We all complained and complained. Now the rain has stopped.
The weather has responded in the same way my mother did when I was a whiny kid: "Now I'm really gonna give you something to cry about!"
So it begins, the real summer weather. Get ready for some staggering, bone-crushing, searing, scorching heat.
The only thing that keeps most people going in weather like this is the ability to escape. We escape to the beach or just inside to the air- conditioning.
Plants are tougher than that. They're stuck out in the sultry sun with no air-conditioning.
Many of them are not just surviving, they're blooming! Those are the tough ones that earn my admiration.
Most members of the hibiscus family are especially heat-tolerant. This is the season for the hibiscus clan, including native swamp mallows, Texas star hibiscus, rose of Sharon and okra.
Okra tolerates heat well because it originated in Africa. Okra leaves are coarse-textured and maple-like. This imparts a tropical appearance almost out of place in a vegetable garden. The ornamental flowers are cream-colored with maroon centers and reminiscent of hibiscus or hollyhock.
Okra is grown for its fruit a delicate fuzzy pod sometimes called lady's fingers. If the pod remains on the plant too long, it becomes tough and woody. At this point it's not fit to eat but is good for use in dried flower arrangements.
In choosing a variety, there are several possibilities. Some tall cultivars can reach 5 to 10 feet and can be used as a seasonal screen for blocking unsightly views. Gardeners with smaller spaces should choose dwarf varieties which grow 3 to 4 feet tall. Okra pods vary in color from the traditional green to white or red. There is even a climbing okra. The luffa gourd or dishrag gourd is called Chinese okra, though it is a gourd rather than an okra. Some ribbed okra varieties have pods lined with ridges and are proclaimed to retain tenderness. Other okra varieties are esteemed for having spineless fruit less likely to cause the rashes and allergies that some associate with the plant.
Even spineless varieties still have prickles on stems and leaves. The only way to avoid developing a rash is by gardening in long sleeves and harvesting from dry plants. The long sleeves can also deter the ants that frequent okra plants.
Ants are found on okra because aphids like to feed there. Aphids are tiny soft-bodied plant lice. They feed on host plants (like members of the hibiscus family) by sucking sugar water from the leaves and stems. Ants farm aphids as if they were milk cows. The ants herd aphids onto the hibiscus plant at feeding time and back into the mound at night. Aphids exude honeydew because of the sugary sap they consume. The ants use honeydew as food.
In spite of the fact that okra is an international vegetable native to Africa and frequently used in Indian cooking, it is considered in the United States to be a Southern vegetable.
The reason for this stereotype is that okra's germination requirements for a warm soil and its need for a long growing season are easily met in the South. Some new cool-tolerant, short-season varieties are being developed for Northern gardeners, but for now we should consider okra to be a Southern treasure.
Perhaps we should even celebrate its laudable qualities with an okra fest!
Gail Barton is coordinator of the Horticulture Technology Program at Meridian Community College.

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