Botanical name: Abelmoschus esculentus
Common name: Okra
Family name: Malvaceae (Mallow family)
Native range: India to Myanmar
Location in Duke Gardens: Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden
USDA Hardiness Zones: 2-11 (summer annual)
By Macy Hartsell
Growing up in Alabama meant eating plenty of one of the most classic Southern veggies of all time: okra. Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) can be eaten pickled, raw or cooked—preferably homemade and fried if you want to feel real Southern. These fuzzy, finger-like vegetables can turn any meal into a Southern staple.
Okra is an annual warm season vegetable that produces a long and skinny, fuzzy capsule fruit. The capsule is divided into several sections full of seeds and is incredibly slimy inside, with a musky odor. This smell is why the name of the genus is derived from an Arabic word meaning "source of musk," while the specific epithet esculentus is Latin for "edible." Thus we end up with an edible, slimy source of musk—appetizing, right?
In addition, both the flower and the leaves of the okra plant are also edible, though they are much less commonly consumed. The leaves may be cooked or eaten raw and possess a nice grassy flavor. The flower is typically eaten raw and tastes similar to an asparagus. Okra is full of vitamin C and vitamin K, two important nutrients for human health, making it a great plant to add in your summer gardens and on your dinner plates.
Okra is frost-sensitive, and is usually grown as a summer annual up to USDA hardiness zones 9-11, though it is perennial in zones 10-11. Like their closes relative the hibiscus, okra plants crave full sun and plenty of warm weather, as well as a nice moist soil so their fruit can be harvested in the summer, though they are also fairly drought tolerant. Luckily for us, the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden is the perfect place for them, and we have several okra plants this summer for visitors to enjoy.
Photos from top: Freshly harvested 'Silver Queen' okra fruits from the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden; a 'Silver Queen' okra plant in flower. Photos by horticulturist Megan Botzenhart.