Long a staple of Southern cooking, okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is available in several different types, from old-time favorites to new, improved varieties, but kitchen gardeners often stick with the tried and true. Although okra can be grown in all U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones, this annual crop flourishes in hot weather. Whether you're into nostalgia or looking for the latest in okra plants, you'll find them among the following types:
The okra of a century or more ago varies from modern varieties in many ways. Some heirloom types still bear long, narrow pods with hard, dense ribs along the fruit and a sharp, prickly point at the tip. Around the base of the pods, thorny spines guard the fruit. Many old-time types lose tenderness quickly and grow tough.
- The heirloom Cow Horn okra (Abelmoschus esculentus var. Cow Horn) grows up to 8 feet tall or more, producing mature, spiny pods up to 14 inches long. Best for cooking at half that size or less, the full-size pods are used in dried floral arrangements.
- Silver Queen okra (Abelmoschus esculentus var. Silver Queen) grows up to 6 feet tall with cream-green pods up to 7 inches long. This heirloom variety is known for heavy crops of its delicately ribbed pods.
Pods that lack the thorny spines of old-time types simplify okra picking. Plant breeders have worked through the years to eliminate the spines, increase tenderness and keep the dark, grooved pods.
- Clemson Spineless okra (Abelmoschus esculentus var. Clemson Spineless) has been a top-selling spineless variety since Clemson University introduced the award-winning plant in 1939. It grows up to 5 feet tall with uniform pods that are best harvested when 3 inches long.
'Cajun Delight' okra (
Notorious for reverting to standard sizes when conditions allow, dwarf okras generally reach just 2 to 4 feet tall instead of twice that. Dwarf okras include long-podded and short-podded heirloom and modern varieties, with and without spines, that suit small spaces well.
- Cajun Jewel okra (Abelmoschus esculentus var. Cajun Jewel) bears an early crop of spineless, 8-inch-long pods on a plant that stays 2 1/2 to 4 feet tall.
- Dwarf Green Long Pod okra (Abelmoschus esculentus var. Dwarf Green Long Pod) stays just 2 to 2 1/2 feet tall, as it delivers dark green, ribbed pods up to 8 inches long. This variety does well in northern areas with shorter growing seasons.
Mammoth or giant-type okras earn their name from height, length of pods, pod girth or other factors. Some giant varieties may reach 10 feet tall or more -- double the height of many standard okras -- and some "giants" are standard height but have fat pods that dwarf normal okra.
- Beck's Big Buck okra (Abelmoschus esculentus var. Beck's Big Buck) produces fat pods that can fill a human hand.
- Perkins Mammoth Long Pod okra (Abelmoschus esculentus var. Perkins Mammoth Long Pod) grows up to 10 feet in height. Harvest the extra-long pods at 4 to 5 inches in length for maximum tenderness, or let them mature up to 9 inches long.
Smooth-skinned, round-pod okras lack the prominent ribs but often have thicker, meatier walls instead. They are frequently used in canning and commercial processing.
- Emerald okra (Abelmoschus esculentus var. Emerald), developed by the Campbell Soup Company, offers high-quality, early harvests of flavorful, smooth pods.
- Louisiana Green Velvet okra (Abelmoschus esculentus var. Louisiana Green Velvet) offers smooth, round 8-inch pods that retain their color when cooked. This award-winning variety tolerates high heat and humidity.
Five to eight firm ribs running the length of the pod give star-pod types their characteristic fluted appearance. Sliced crosswise, the star shape adds a distinctive touch to culinary dishes.
- Star of David okra (Abelmoschus esculentus var. Star of David) bears strong-flavored, 5- to 7-inch pods up to 2 inches in diameter on plants that grow 8 to 10 feet tall. Cross sections of the mature, moderately spined pods inspired the name.
- 'Annie Oakley II' okra (Abelmoschus esculentus 'Annie Oakley II') stays a compact 4 1/2 feet tall due to short "internodes," or spaces between the nodes on its stems. Long, slender and abundant, its spineless pods mature early and hold their tenderness well.
In addition to various shades of classic okra greenery, some okras have red, purple or burgundy pods, stems and leaf veins. Beautiful in the garden, they complement okra's hibiscus-like, burgundy-throated yellow blooms. Red okra loses its color when cooked, but fresh slices add flavor and color.
- Red Burgundy okra (Abelmoschus esculentus var. Red Burgundy) stays 3 to 4 feet tall and bears an abundant crop of purple-red, 5- to 7-inch pods.
- Red Velvet okra (Abelmoschus esculentus var. 'Red Velvet') teams scarlet-red, 3- to 6-inch, slightly ribbed pods with matching red stems on a 4- to 5-foot-tall plant that adds ornamental interest along with edible goodness.