Okra is a tall-growing, warm-season vegetable that originated in the hot climates of Africa and is thought to have come to America during the slave trade.
Its name started as “nkruman,” from the African twi language. Slaves in Angola called okra “ngumbo” which became “gumbo” and is still an oft-used word for dishes in which okra is a main ingredient.
Okra, or abelmoschus esculentus, is the only vegetable crop that comes from the same family as hibiscus, the Malvacaea family, and the plant’s red to yellow flowers can easily be confused with hibiscus.
References: Auburn University, University of California, University of Florida/IFAS Extension, University of Illinois Extension.
Types & Varieties
Okra is unlike many other vegetables in that new varieties are seldom introduced. Instead, existing varieties are continuously being improved by private and commercial breeders, who develop new hybrids.
Among the more popular green and red varieties in cultivation include Annie Oakley, Dwarf Long Pod, Clemson Spineless, and Red Okra.
Annie Oakley is one of the more costly hybrids and takes 52 days to mature. It is chill tolerant and produces dark green, narrow, star-shaped, extra-tender pods.
Dwarf Long Pod produces medium height, high-yielding plants in about 50 days with deeply etched leaves and dark green star-shaped pods.
Clemson Spineless, as its name suggests, is spineless and produces good yields, maturing in about 56 days with bright green star-shaped pods.
Red Okra produces 3- to 4- foot tall bushy plants with pods of up to 7 inches long. Plants require 55 to 65 days to mature. Other varieties include Burgundy, Cajun Delight, Emerald, Jing Orange, Louisiana Green, Star of David, and Velvet.
Okra grows well in warm soil, so it is best planted in one-inch-deep hills after the ground has thawed in the spring. Seedlings are thinned when about 3 inches in height, with only the strongest plant left on each hill. Plants grow best in well-drained soil with a pH of 6 to 8.
Okra pods grow very rapidly and are harvested when immature, typically 3 to 7 days after flowering. When harvested, the fruit is bright green, the pods fleshy, and the seeds are small.
If harvested too late, the pod becomes compact and tough, and color decreases. Since it is a very delicate vegetable, it should be marketed right after harvesting.
Pests & Diseases
Mites feed by piercing the plant and sucking out sap, affecting moisture levels and deforming flowers and leaves. Aphids can build up on the undersides of leaves and cause crumpling, thickening, and downward curling. Very young plants can be killed by heavy infestations.
Imported cabbage worms, diamond black moth worms, and cabbage loopers, not easily detected due to their size, attack okra by eating holes in leaves. The cabbage looper can also bore into pods and ruin an entire crop if not controlled. Corn earworms bore into pods and damage seedlings.
Melon thrips are an especially damaging pest resistant to many insecticides and may even increase in numbers with the use of broad-spectrum insecticides. Plant damage is caused by feeding on all aspects of the plant: leaves, stems, fruit, and flowers.
Okra is highly sensitive to rootknot nematodes, which cause a secondary infection in the roots and reduce crop yields. Several other pests have been cited as being a nuisance including cutworms, earwigs, whiteflies, crickets, and stink bugs.
Disease is the primary concern with okra crops, since the pods can be very easily damaged. Pythium, a fungal disease, can cause mold in roots and seedlings from too much moisture.
Fusarium and verticillium wilt can kill okra plants when the water-transporting cells become clogged with fungi, and will cause wilting and drooping. Problems with rot can be reduced by removing lower leaves for better circulation.
Storage & Packaging
If stored at 45 to 50°F, okra can be kept for 7 to 10 days postharvest. Relative humidity must remain high at 95 to 100% to reduce moisture loss, pod toughening, and appearance degradation. Okra is a low ethylene producer; exposure to ethylene will reduce shelf life and cause pod-yellowing.
References: UC Davis Postharvest Technology Center, Michigan State University Extension, University of California, University of Florida/IFAS Extension, University of Illinois Extension.
GRADES & GOOD ARRIVAL
Generally speaking, the percentage of defects shown on a timely government inspection certificate should not exceed the percentage of allowable defects, provided: (1) transportation conditions were normal; (2) the USDA or CFIA inspection was timely; and (3) the entire lot was inspected.
|U.S. Grade Standards||Days Since Shipment||% of Defects Allowed||Optimum Transit Temp. (°F)|
There are no good arrival guidelines for this commodity specific to Canada; U.S. guidelines apply to shipments unless otherwise agreed by contract.
References: DRC, PACA, USDA.
• Standards for okra were developed in 1928 and have not been updated—there are no specific guidelines for scoring defects; they are scored as damage when materially detracting from the appearance, or edible/marketing quality of the individual pod, or the lot as a whole
• Because tolerances for defects are based on weight, a sample size of 100 ounces is used
• Discoloration is a common defect, ranging in color from light brown to black, affecting the ribs and tips; the darker the discoloration, the less area is allowed before scoring a defect
• Yellowing is associated with overheating or over maturity and is scored as a ‘free from defect’—meaning any amount of yellowing found on a pod is scored as a defect.
Source: Tom Yawman, International Produce Training, www.ipt.us.com.