When I was at Rooting DC last February, I received six seeds of “African red okra” from a person who was talking about preserving seed diversity. Intrigued, I planted them later in the season just to see how they would grow. Four of the six seeds germinated resulting in two plants in the front garden in full sun and dry conditions and two in the back garden. The two in the back lived with the tomatoes in morning shade and afternoon sun and did not lack for water since the diva tomatoes get all the water they need.
All summer long I have been watching the okra grow in my Virginia garden. When people think of okra plants, they think “vegetable.” True, the immature pods are harvested for many types of dishes and are highly nutritious. Other parts are edible: the leaves can be eaten raw or cooked (like spinach) or used as a thickener in a stew. The seeds, if roasted and ground, can be used as a coffee substitute and if they are pressed, they can yield oil for cooking.
I never intended to eat the pods, I just wanted to see how the plant would fare as a garden plant, a summer annual. Now in September, I think they have reached their full glory. These plants are about 4 feet tall with sparse foliage but plenty of pods and flowers. Because okra is a member of the hibiscus family, the small, yellow flowers look like hibiscus flowers but are not as flat. The thick pods are red and green, with five broad sides that taper into a point. The pod points upwards, much like a hat. Some pods have already matured enough to split open, revealing many dark black seeds (which mature to a soft gray later on). These I cut and put in a paper bag to prevent okra babies in my garden next year. The mature pods can be dried and used in floral arrangements such as wreaths. The young pods, if sliced in half, can be used to make flower designs by pressing the cut half into an ink pad and pressing down on paper.
Although not deer resistant, these plants have proven to be pest-resistant. I have read that okra plants are the most heat and drought-tolerant vegetable species in the world and they certainly were drought-tolerant in my garden. They are known to grow in poor soils with heavy clay and intermittent moisture. Technically okra is a perennial but in our zone 7 area, the plants will die from the cold this winter.
I like their strong vertical shape but because the foliage is sparse, they would work best if many were grown together yet with enough space to see the pods. There is actually quite a lot of diversity with okra with regards to the pods: they can be spiny, smooth, thin, thick, short, or long and have many more ridges than five. Pods can be green or green and red or burgundy red. However there is little diversity with the flowers, basically yellow or white. There are some varieties with gorgeous burgundy red pods that would be very interesting to try in the garden, especially in a mass up against a house, as a backdrop to other plants. Instead of growing okra for cooking, try growing okra as an ornamental garden plant and let the pods mature into unusual colors and shapes. The yellow flowers are a bonus!