Abelmoschus esculentus is a member of the Malvaceae (mallow) family.
Varieties include Lee, Emerald (8 inch long, smooth, dark green mature pod; 5 feet high plant), Annie Oakley, Burgundy (red), Perkins Spineless (7 inch long, ridged, green mature pod; 3 feet high plant), Dwarf Green Long Pod (7 to 8 inch long, slightly ridged, green mature pod; 3 feet high plant), Clemson Spineless (6 inch long, moderately ridged, green mature pod; 4 to 5 feet high plant), and French Market.
The okra fruit, a large, erect pod, is harvested immature and is also known as gumbo. It is an herbaceous, shrub-like dicotyledonus annual plant with woody stems growing 3 to 6 feet in height. It has alternate broad leaves. Flowers have five yellow petals and a purple area at the base. It is a tropical native of Africa and is related to cotton. Varieties are available with different pod colors (white, red, green, and purple) and lengths.
Marketing. Red or burgundy okra is a good specialty crop.
Current production and yield. Top U.S. shipping states are California, Florida and Texas. Production is primarily June through November. Mexican imports are available year-round but peak May through October.
In California, in 1987, the County Agricultural Commissioners reported okra grown in Contra Costa, Fresno, Sutter, Tulare and Riverside counties. Only Riverside County reported actual figures. It reported a total production of 2,823 tons on 236 acres with a total value of $2,260,900. The yield was 12 tons/acre with a price of $801/ton.
In 1988 in California there were reported to be 318 harvested acres of okra with a value of $2,399,000 and a production of 2,643 tons. The average yield was 8.3 tons/acre with a price of $908/ton. Between 1980 and 1988 reported okra acreage has ranged from a low of 70 acres in 1985 to a high of 375 acres in 1980.
An approximate yield of 10-12 tons/acre is equivalent to 150 pounds/100 feet of row.
Use. From these pods is made the well-known gumbo soup of the southern United States. The pods are also employed in their green state as a boiled vegetable, in soups or stews, or fried, and are dried and used in the winter in certain parts of the country. In some areas the seeds are roasted, ground and served as a coffee substitute. The swelling gum (mucilaginous material) in Okra is greater than in all other common vegetables and may take getting used to.
Climatic requirements. The seeds are sensitive to cold and therefore should not be grown until the ground has become warm. Grows best when minimum and maximum mean temperatures are 65°F and 95°F respectively.
Propagation and care. The seed should be sown half to one inch deep and the plants thinned to 12 inches in the row. The rows are usually far enough apart to permit cultivation (36 to 40 inches). Cotton equipment can be used for planting, fertilizing and cultivating. One ounce of seed supplies 100 feet of row (about 8 pounds per acre). The seed may be soaked in water at room temperature for 24 hours to improve uniformity of germination. If the plants grow too high they may be cut back to about 2 feet, then fertilized with nitrogen for a new flush of growth. Okra does not tolerate wet, poorly drained and acidic soils. In the desert valleys of Southern California early plantings can be made from early February through March. In the San Joaquin Valley an early planting can be made from the first of April through the middle of May.
Harvest and postharvest practices. Individual okra flowers are open for only about one day. The pods develop quickly and are ready for harvest 4 to 10 days after flowering when the pods are 3 to 4 inches long. Since the pods develop so quickly harvesting must be done at least every other day. Typically the okra pods are snapped from the plant by hand. Touching the plant causes skin irritation so gloves and long sleeve shirts should be worn. Okra should be ready for the first harvest about 70 to 80 days after planting and will continue to bear for weeks.
Okra is harvested when pods are about 3 inches long. To meet the one official grade, US No. 1, pods must be fresh, tender, not badly misshapen, and be free from decay and damage. Okra needs to be handled carefully to avoid bruising, and is packed into containers or baskets with 15, 18, or 30 pounds net weight. Containers need to be well ventilated because of okra's high respiration rate. USDA storage recommendations are 45° to 50°F (7° to 10°C) (okra is chilling sensitive), at 90 to 95 percent relative humidity, with an approximate storage life of 7 to 10 days.
Pest and weed problems. Pests that occur as occasional outbreaks on okra, in their order of importance, are cotton aphids, corn earworm, nematodes, verticillium wilt, green stinkbugs, the harlequin bug, and pink bollworms. The pink bollworm does little damage to okra, but the crop serves as a bothersome host in quarantine programs. Because of the limited market for okra there have been few programs to develop pesticide registrations and control recommendations for the pests. For current registrations, growers should contact their local farm advisor or agricultural commissioner.
Cultural practices such as crop residue destruction and burial in the winter will aid in suppression of pink bollworms and bollworms. Crop rotation is a practice that will control or suppress weeds, plant diseases, nematodes and some insects.
Okra seed is widely available.
The Packer. 1989 Produce Availability and Merchandising Guide, 1989. Shawnee Mission, Kansas.
Yamaguchi, Mas. World Vegetables. AVI Publishing Co., Westport, Conn., 1983.
California Agricultural Statistics Service, CDFA. Agricultural Commissioner Data. 1980 through 1988 annual reports.
Tropical Products Transport Handbook. USDA Agric. Handbook 668. 1987.
Schweers, Vincent H. and William Sims. Okra Production. University of California ANR Leaflet 2679. Feb. 1976. 5 pp.
Martin, Franklin W. and Ruth Ruberté. Vegetables For the Hot Humid Tropics. Part 2. Okra. Science and Education Administration, USDA, New Orleans, LA 70153. Sept. 1978. 22 pp.
Marita Cantwell, Vegetable Specialist, UC Davis. Personal Communication.
Thomas F. Leigh, Entomologist, USDA Cotton Research Station, Shafter CA., Personal Communication.
Mansour, N. S. Okra. Oregan State University Vegetable Crops Recommendations. 1990.
Compiled by Claudia Myers, UC Small Farm Center.
Reviewed by Keith Mayberry, 9/89.
Reviewed by Marita Cantwell, 10/6/89.
Reviewed by Hunter Johnson, 9/89.
Figure 1. Okra growing in the Coachella Valley. (Photo by Hunter Johnson).
Figure 2. A red podded Okra variety. (Photo by Hunter Johnson).