Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is a plant in the Malvaceae family that is a multi-purpose crop, but commonly consumed for its green tender fruits as a vegetable.
The most well-known characteristic of okra is its slimy nature. Okra’s immature fruits (green pods), which are consumed as vegetables, can be used in salads, soups and stews, fresh or dried, fried or boiled and in making pickles.
The pods have a mucilaginous (sticky) consistency after cooking.
The seeds are a source of oil, protein and unsaturated fatty acids such as linoleic acid. They have, however, been used on a small-scale for oil production. They may also be roasted and ground to form a caffeine-free substitute for coffee.
Okra pods contain thick polysaccharides used to thicken soups and stews, as an egg white substitute, and as a fat substitute in chocolate bar cookies and in chocolate frozen dairy dessert.
Okra is a popular health food due to its high fibre, vitamin C and folate content. It is also a good source of calcium and potassium. The major antioxidants in vegetables are vitamins C and E, carotenoids, and phenolic compounds, especially flavonoids.
It grows best on loam and sandy loam soils, but will produce good yields on heavier soils. However, it does not tolerate excessive moisture or poorly aerated soils.
Prepare soil as you would for annual crops by incorporating composted organic matter and balanced fertiliser (0.9-1.4kg of 10:20:10 per 100 square feet or equivalent) before planting seeds that are available in agrovets at Sh200 for eight gramme sachet. The crop prefers a soil pH of above 6.0.
Okra holds up well to pests, scarce water, and even intense heat. Additionally, the plant produces high yields throughout its season, making it a very rewarding experience for even the least experienced farmers.
The mature plant is tall, with the stem usually ranging from 6 to 10 feet by the end of its growing season. The plant’s attractive appeal helps beautify the farm as around the okra pods, are yellow or white hibiscus-like flowers with a diameter of approximately 2-3 inches.
Okra is best grown from seed since it is quick to produce fruit (48 to 55 days after emergence). The seed cannot be stored for long, so buy fresh ones each season, or save seed of non-hybrid varieties yourself by allowing a few pods on your best plant to mature.
Sow seeds about 2 inches apart and 1 inch deep. Rows should be at least 3 feet apart if you want to walk in between rows. Thin plants to one foot apart after they are up and growing.
Okra can tolerate dry soil. However, regular irrigation will increase yields. Keep the area weed-free and apply a light fertilisation following the first harvest.
Harvest pods when they are tender and immature (3-4 inches long). They must be picked every other day to maintain production.
Use shears to cut pods from the plant. If the stem is difficult to cut, then the pod is probably too tough to use.
However, do not allow old pods to remain on the plant since they will sap energy, therefore, reducing production.
Okra can be stored in the refrigerator for 2-3 days before use. Once pods begin to darken, they should either be used or discarded.
The market for the crop includes fresh produce stores, open air markets and supermarkets where a kilo goes currently at Sh180.
Okra’s nutritional content is not as widely discussed as many other nutritious vegetables such as sukuma wiki (collard greens) and spinach.
It has an impressive vitamin and mineral content and contains a large amount of fibre and has a unique profile of protein.
The most abundant vitamin in okra is K, which is important for blood clotting.
One cup of okra contains almost 40 per cent of the daily value of vitamin C, which is essential for normal growth and development in the body. It plays an important role in maintaining and repairing tissues.
Additionally, vitamin C is an antioxidant, which neutralises free radicals that can accumulate in the body and often lead to ageing and some diseases.
Vitamin A, traditionally obtained from carrots and sweet potatoes, is available in moderate amounts in okra. This vitamin helps in maintaining proper immune function.
Other functions of the vitamin include maintaining eye health and regular cell growth.
Eight B vitamins exist in nature, that is, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, B6, biotin, folate, and B12. Okra contains half of these vitamins. Although their functions vary slightly, they share one common purpose, which is energy metabolism. This is simply the conversion of food components into usable energy for the body.
The most prevalent mineral in okra is magnesium, which is known to have several roles in the body, including energy production, a necessary component of bone tissue and an antioxidant.
Calcium and potassium are also found in okra, each comprising about 8 per cent of the daily value. Calcium is well-known for its function in maintaining bone and teeth health, but is also critical to cell signalling, blood clotting, muscle contraction and nerve function.
Potassium also aids in nerve and muscle communication as well as in blood pressure control because it can lessen the effects of sodium.
Okra is a great source of both soluble and insoluble fibres, the structural part of plant foods that cannot be digested by humans.
Soluble fibre dissolves in water and turns to gel during digestion. Commonly recommended for diabetics, soluble fibre works to slow the release of glucose into the bloodstream and prevents a dangerous blood-sugar spike.
It further aids in the elimination of cholesterol from the diet and digestive juices and helps with weight loss.
Insoluble fibre, which does not dissolve in water, is key for a healthy digestive system and is abundant in okra. This type of fibre essentially “scrubs” the inside of the intestine as it passes through the digestive tract breaking up large particles and aids in the completion of digestion.
How to select and store okra?
Knowing how to select the best okra will ensure that you are receiving the most nutritious and tasty pods. Choose pods that are bright green and firm.
Avoid choosing pods that are very hard because they will be bitter and difficult to eat. Conversely, pods that are too soft are overripe and will not taste as good either.
The easiest way to prepare okra is by steaming it, just like any other vegetable, by placing it in a steamer or in a pot of boiling water using a steaming basket.
This process takes about 5-8 minutes. Okra can also be stewed or baked alone or with other vegetables.
The writer is based at the Department of Human Nutrition, Egerton University.
From the seed to harvest in 45 days
- Okra can be planted just like beans, thus, there is no need for a nursery.
- After germination, it can watered thrice a week. It is ready for harvest in about 45 days.
- Okra plant starts flowering when as short as a feet-and-a-half and it can grow to 9ft in three months.
- During harvest, it is gathered when the pod is green, tender and immature.
- Harvesting can be done after every two days in three months if the farmer has managed the okra well; using good manure and applying pesticides to control pests and diseases.