Okra shines in the garden. A member of the hibiscus family, okra definitely has one of the most beautiful blooms in the vegetable garden. The blossoms are ivory to creamy yellow or red in color with a deep reddish purple throat. They bloom for only one day. By sundown, the okra flower is wilted, whether or not it's been pollinated. If it's sunny and the bees are out, you'll see miniature okra pods underneath the wilted flowers. Not all the blooms on the okra plant will be pollinated, but because the plants blossom for a long time, you should get a sizable harvest.
Asia and Africa gave us okra. It grows wild in the upper Nile region and was used in northern Africa for centuries. In fact, okra is an African word. Trading ships brought the vegetable to this country, and it quickly found favor as a crop and as an ingredient in French and Creole cooking in Louisiana. Many of us have enjoyed a gumbo soup. Gumbo, from the French word gombo, means okra, which is used as a natural thickener for soups and stews. Okra is often stewed with tomatoes, deep fried, pickled, boiled or steamed and served with butter, as well as eaten raw, fresh from the garden. Some folks don't like okra's gummy quality when it's boiled or steamed, and it seems to be more popular when combined with other vegetables, fried or pickled.
It's easy to grow in hot climates, so okra is one of those vegetables that's considered a "southern" crop. It's true that the southern parts of our country have the long, hot growing seasons that okra needs to bear really well, but okra can be grown anywhere.
From seeds or house-started transplants, you can grow okra in northern gardens where you can count on only three to four frost-free months a year. Because okra can't tolerate frost, however, yields in the North may not be as high as from plants grown farther south. Northern growers who really like okra can make up for that by simply growing a few extra plants.
Okra seeds have a tough outer covering that makes it hard for them to sprout. To get them to germinate faster, place your okra seeds in the freezer overnight. This expands the moisture in them and cracks the outer covering. When you plant the seeds the next day in the usual manner, they already have a good start toward germinating. Some people soak the seeds in warm water for 24 hours. This, too, speeds germination by softening the outer covering. It takes a little longer than the freezer trick, but also works well.
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