The name okra is most often used in the UK, United States and the Philippines, with a variant pronunciation in Caribbean English and Nigeria of okro. The word okra is from the Igboọ́kụ̀rụ̀. The plant and its seed pods are also known as "lady's fingers". In various Bantu languages, okra is called (ki)ngombo or a variant, and this is possibly the origin of the name "gumbo", used in parts of the United States and the English-speaking Caribbean (via Spanish/Portuguese "quingombo").
The geographical origin of okra is disputed, with supporters of South Asian, Ethiopian and West African origins. Supporters of a South Asian origin point to the presence of its proposed parents in that region. Supporters of a West African origin point to the greater diversity of okra in that region.
The Egyptians and Moors of the 12th and 13th centuries used the Arabic word for the plant, bamya, suggesting it had come into Egypt from Arabia, but earlier it was probably taken from Ethiopia to Arabia. The plant may have entered southwest Asia across the Red Sea or the Bab-el-Mandeb straight to the Arabian Peninsula, rather than north across the Sahara, or from India. One of the earliest accounts is by a Spanish Moor who visited Egypt in 1216 and described the plant under cultivation by the locals who ate the tender, young pods with meal.
The species is a perennial, often cultivated as an annual in temperate climates, and often grows to around 2 metres (6.6 ft) tall. It is related to such species as cotton, cocoa, and hibiscus. The leaves are 10–20 centimetres (3.9–7.9 in) long and broad, palmately lobed with 5–7 lobes. The flowers are 4–8 centimetres (1.6–3.1 in) in diameter, with five white to yellow petals, often with a red or purple spot at the base of each petal. The fruit is a capsule up to 18 centimetres (7.1 in) long with pentagonal cross-section, containing numerous seeds.
Abelmoschus esculentus is cultivated throughout the tropical and warm temperate regions of the world for its fibrous fruits or pods containing round, white seeds. It is among the most heat- and drought-tolerant vegetable species in the world and will tolerate soils with heavy clay and intermittent moisture, but frost can damage the pods.
In cultivation, the seeds are soaked overnight prior to planting to a depth of 1–2 centimetres (0.39–0.79 in). Germination occurs between six days (soaked seeds) and three weeks. Seedlings require ample water. The seed pods rapidly become fibrous and woody and, to be edible as a vegetable, must be harvested when immature, usually within a week after pollination. Okra is available in two varieties, green and red. Red okra carries the same flavor as the more popular green okra and differs only in color. When cooked, the red okra pods turn green.
Okra leaves may be cooked in a similar way to the greens of beets or dandelions. The leaves are also eaten raw in salads. Okra seeds may be roasted and ground to form a caffeine-free substitute for coffee. When importation of coffee was disrupted by the American Civil War in 1861, the Austin State Gazette said, "An acre of okra will produce seed enough to furnish a plantation with coffee in every way equal to that imported from Rio."
Greenish-yellow edible okra oil is pressed from okra seeds; it has a pleasant taste and odor, and is high in unsaturated fats such as oleic acid and linoleic acid. The oil content of some varieties of the seed is about 40%. At 794 kg/ha, the yield was exceeded only by that of sunflower oil in one trial. A 1920 study found that a sample contained 15% oil. A 2009 study found okra oil suitable for use as a biofuel.
Bast fiber from the stem of the plant has industrial uses.
^Martin, Franklin W. (1982). "Okra, Potential Multiple-Purpose Crop for the Temperate Zones and Tropics". Economic Botany. 36 (3): 340–345. doi:10.1007/BF02858558.
^Mays, D.A., W. Buchanan, B.N. Bradford, and P.M. Giordano (1990). "Fuel production potential of several agricultural crops". Advances in New Crops: 260–263.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
^Jamieson, George S.; Baughman, Walter F. (1920). "Okra Seed Oil.1". Journal of the American Chemical Society. 42: 166. doi:10.1021/ja01446a023.