The Spruce Eats


Okra or Abelmoschus esculentus is an ornamental plant that is considered part of the Malvaceae family which includes cacao, durian and hibiscus. Although the geographical origin of okra is  disputed, it is believed to have roots around Ethiopia where it can be traced as far back as the 12th century BC where it was cultivated by Egyptians.

Also known as lady’s fingers, okra is grown across Asia, Africa, South America, Africa and the Middle East. In Australia, okra is grown mainly in the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia, with other states producing smaller volumes.

Growth and harvest

Okra grows best in hot and humid climates and is at its peak during the summer months. The plants are perennials, but are usually cultivated annually and require full sun. It is recommended seeds are soaked overnight in tepid water before planting to promote germination. Seeds must be placed 2cm deep in warm soil with 15cm between each planting.

During the early stages, a 5-6cm layer of mulch should be applied to prevent weeds from growing. Plants need to be watered and fertilised throughout the growth process for optimum yield. The seed pods are typically harvested after about two months or once they have reached 5-6cm in length.

When removing the pods, it is important to wear protective clothing and gloves as most varieties are covered in spines that can irritate the skin. To remove the pods from the plant, the stem should be cut above the cap with a sharp knife. If the stems are too difficult to cut, the pod is too old to consume and should be discarded. After the first harvest, the lower leaves of the plant should be removed by hand or with scissors.

Flavour profile and appearance

There are many different varieties of okra, but Clemson’s Spineless and dark green are the most commonly grown across Australia. Clemson’s Spineless grows between 7-10cm in length but other varieties can reach up to 17cm.

Most okra is mid to dark green in colour except for Red Burgundy. Younger pods have white seeds that change to black as the plant matures. The fruit is known for its long slender shape and is firm to the touch. It has a mild, grassy flavour that is comparable to eggplant or green beans.

Culinary applications

Although okra is considered a type of fruit, it is treated as a vegetable when used in cooking. Okra can be stir-fried, stewed, blanched or boiled and is a staple in Southern, Caribbean and Indian cuisines. The fruit has a crunchy texture when it is sautéed but becomes tender when it is cooked. It secretes a slimy mucus that acts as a natural thickening agent, making it ideal for dishes such as gumbo. The slime results in an acquired mouth feel, which is why most chefs soak okra in a water and vinegar mixture before cooking.