Peaceable Kingdom near San Antonio, Texas
The domestication origin of okra is disputed and may have been South Asia, West Africa, or Ethiopia. It is believed that okra traveled through the Middle East and then through Europe, and finally to the Americas. Individuals from Africa transported okra throughout South America, the Caribbean, and the southern United States during the slave trade.
In 1658, okra arrived in Brazil, and by the early 1700's it had reached the southern part of the United States. It has increasingly been important in the Southwest because it is very drought and heat tolerant, traits hearkening back to it's African origins.
Okra is used in many Southern dishes with an influence from African cuisine, such as Gumbo. Okra pods are also commonly coated with cornmeal or flour and fried. The leaves of okra can be used as a soup thickener, and immature pods can be made into pickles.
Okra is high in fiber, vitamin C, and folate. It is a good source of antioxidants, calcium, and potassium. Okra seed oil is high in unsaturated heart-healthy fats such as linoleic acid.
Okra's mucilaginous properties can be used to relieve inflamed mucous membranes and are good for people with arthritis. The leaves can be made into a poultice for aiding with pain relief, inducing sweats, and preventing scurvy. The leaves contain a high amount of fiber and the cooked pods can help reduce cholesterol levels. They have similar effects to that of local cholla buds.
A fiber can be extracted from the okra bark which in West Africa is spun into yarn, rope, fishing lines, game traps, and hammocks. Paper and cardboard may also be constructed from okra fiber.
Beck’s Gardenville okra was sent to Native Seeds/SEARCH by Hans Hansen in 1994. At the time, Mr. Hansen ran the Southern Grasslands Seed and Plant Exchange. This okra became available through the organization in 1993 and was described as a ‘Texas heirloom; with an intriguing story to tell. In a letter that arrived with the okra seed, Mr. Hansen described how this variety had been stewarded by Malcolm Beck of San Antonio.
Beck was a local organic growing legend. The story goes that in 1968, Malcolm Beck purchased a farm where he found a strange okra growing wild. Unable to identify it, Beck contacted Sam Cotner, the Texas A&M vegetable specialist. Dr. Cotner could not distinguish the variety and so sent it to the research station in Rio Grande Valley, but the resident okra specialist there was not able to provide and answer either.
Unsatisfied, Beck decided to do his own detective work. Asking around the area, he discovered from two separate sources that the okra had been brought to the United States from Germany before the end of World War II by a man who would later go on to own the Buckhorn Saloon in San Antonio. It was said that the seed was smuggled into the country inside a camera. The saloon owner gave some of his okra to a man with a farm northeast of San Antonio. This farmer grew the okra and then passed the seed to other neighboring farms, one of which Beck eventually purchased. The plants Beck first observed were likely volunteer plants that had reseeded themselves from the salon owner’s original gift.
Beck’s Gardenville Okra is productive even under drought conditions, and grew wild for many years in the southern United States. Okra likes full, hot sun.
Abelmoschus esculentus (okra). (n.d.) In Discover Plants and Fungi. Retrieved from http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/abelmoschus-esculentus-okra