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 language twi. 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 & CUTS
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. Several green and red varieties exist, among the most popular are Annie Oakley (one of the more costly hybrids, it takes 52 days to mature and is chill tolerant; the plant produces dark green, narrow, star-shaped, extra-tender pods); Dwarf Long Pod (of medium height, it takes 49 to 52 days to mature with deep cut leaves and dark green, star-shaped pods with heavy yields); Clemson Spineless (this standard, spineless variety produces good yields and matures in approximately 56 days; its bright green, star-shaped pods have been grown for over 40 years due to low seed costs and wide adaptation); and Red Okra (as one of the red varieties, it produces 3 to 4 foot-tall bushy plants with pods of up to 7 inches long; requires 55 to 65 days to mature). Other varieties include Burgundy, Cajun Delight, Emerald, Jing Orange, Louisiana Green, Star of David, and Velvet.
References: Oregon State University, Texas A&M University, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Cooperative Extension, University of Illinois Extension.
PESTS & DISEASE
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.
Mites feed by piercing the plant and sucking out sap, causing photosynthesis to be reduced, water content to become unbalanced, and deformation of flowers and leaves. Aphids can build up on the undersides of leaves and cause crumpling, thickening, and downward curling of leaves. Very young plants can be killed by a heavy aphid attack.
Imported cabbage worms, diamond black moth worms, and cabbage loopers, not easily detected due to their small size, attack okra by eating holes in leaves. The cabbage looper can also bore into pods. These worms can ruin an entire crop if not controlled. Corn earworms are another type of caterpillar that can attack vegetable crops by boring into pods and eating the crown of 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 thrips feeding on all aspects of the plant: leaves, stems, fruit, and flowers. Okra is highly sensitive to rootknot nematodes (microscopic roundworms present in soil) which cause a secondary infection in the roots and reduce crop yields. Several other pests have been cited as being a nuisance to okra crops as well, including cutworms, earwigs, whiteflies, crickets and stinkbugs.
References: Michigan State University Extension, University of California, University of Florida/IFAS Extension, University of Illinois Extension.