Seeking the Best Okra Cultivars

In a World-Cup-style elimination trial of 76 okra cultivars, 15 prevailed as the most productive, beautiful, and delicious choices.

Chris Smith is a self-describer okra fanatic.
Photo by Belle Crawford 

In 2018, I grew 76 cultivars of okra. I conducted three separate trials as part of the manic culmination of a six-year obsession with this marvelous mallow, Abelmoschus esculentus. Esculentus is Latin for “delicious” and “full-of-food,” although I fear modern-day botanists would rename okra “Esculentus slimeus,” for its reputation. The mucilage released from all parts of an okra plant has suffered a public opinion reversal over the last 150 years. In the 1800s the slime was celebrated: Okra soup was all the rage, gumbo developed and diversified into many variations, and okra was generally beloved. But the 1900s saw okra’s slippery slide into a marginal vegetable, deep-fried in the South and listed on many a list of most hated foods. In 1949, Victor R. Boswell, the principal horticulturist of the United States Department of Agriculture, declared that, “Okra alone is generally considered too ‘gooey,’ or mucilaginous, to suit American tastes.” While this statement does seem to reflect many people’s personal opinions, it does no justice to okra’s incredible potential. A 1907 article called okra “the plant that seems to hold the wealth of Midas within its branches.” Today that level of accolade is unheard of, but I hope the time is ripe for okra’s return to prominence.

The Okra Trials

I planted 61 of my okra cultivars at Franny’s Farm, which is nestled in a beautiful holler in the mountains of western North Carolina. This batch included a random collection of seeds gathered from seed swaps, plus a wide range of cultivars donated by Sow True Seed, Seed Savers Exchange, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. I planted 10 cultivars down the road, at the DiLoreti Family Farm. I called that batch the “Random Red” cultivar trial, because I had a collection of seeds that were simply labeled “red okra” or “red pod,” with very little information about the plants. I also planted a handful of seeds I’d received from the USDA Genetic Resource Information Network (GRIN) database. These were high-oil seeds, which have formed part of a personal project to breed an oilseed okra cultivar. Okra seed oil is a delicious, nutty, olive-esque oil, and Clay Oliver Farms, in Georgia, is currently the only source in the United States. Okra seeds’ tough seed coats and low oil content make them hard to press, but Southern chefs Sean Brock and Ian Boden, among others, have raved about okra seed oil, making the breeding project an exciting endeavor.

Variety trials steam under the summer sun.
Photo by Chris Smith

When I told people about my trials, I received a series of standard responses.

Shock: “There are THAT many okra cultivars?”

John Outler
7/6/2019 4:31:40 AM

"The 15 cultivars in this downloadable Okra Trial chart..." Link?

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