Southerners love okra, whether fried, grilled, stewed, or pickled. And okra loves the South back. Native to Africa, this iconic vegetable thrives in our sweltering heat and withstands withering droughts. Its candelabra-like stems produce attractive crepe paper blossoms that resemble those of hibiscus or cotton. These blooms give rise to the edible seedpods we crave all summer and fall.
The first rule of harvesting: Don't blink. Okra pods form in a flash. Check blooming plants every two days or you might miss the perfect picking size for tender pods. The second rule: Despite your typical July wardrobe, wear a long-sleeved shirt to reach underneath leaves when cutting off pods. Even if the pods are spineless, okra stems are not and will stick it to you.
Okra is simple to sow and grow. Typically planted a few weeks after tomatoes, it benefits from our long, warm growing season. Soak the large seeds in water overnight, and then sow them 1 inch deep in rows that are at least 3 feet apart. Cover and water thoroughly, giving them a deep soaking every four or five days. When seedlings are 2 inches tall, thin them to 18 inches apart. As the plants begin to flower, apply a blossom-boosting fertilizer according to label directions.
Okra produces until frost, but older plants need reinvigorating in late summer. Do this by cutting the tall plants back to 1 to 2 feet high, allowing side branches to form that continue producing for months. Keep picking the pods until you're ready to save seed. Then let a few pods dry on the plant at the end of the season before frost. Store their seeds in a sealed glass jar. Also, save cut stalks with mature dried pods for interesting decorative elements in wreaths, ornaments, and flower arrangements.
Long or stumpy, red or green, round or ridged, and crooked and hooked, okra comes in many forms. Look for modern and heirloom seeds at southernexposure.com, seedsavers.org, and rareseeds.com.