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Abelmoschus esculentus (L.) Moench 1794
pronounced: a-bell-MOS-kus es-kew-LEN-tus
(Malvaceae – the hibiscus family)
synonym: Hibiscus esculentus L. 1753
pronounced: hy-BIS-kus es-kew-LEN-tus
common names: Okra, Lady’s Fingers, Bhindi
Abelmoschus is neo-Latin, i.e. Latin words created for scientific use after about 1500 AD, and comes from the Arabic abu-l-misk, “father of musk”, i.e. possessing musk; esculentus is Latin for ‘edible’. The word okra is of West African origin; the name bhindi is used in India, Pakistan, and often in the UK, found there in the menus of Indian restaurants in the curry bhindi ghosht and the vegetable side-dish bhindi bhagee. The parentage of the species is much conjectured about – no truly wild populations of okra are apparently known, but only naturalized escapees from cultivation.
This is an annual or perennial that grows up to about 2 m in height. The leaves are 10–20 cm long and broad, palmately lobed with 5–7 lobes. The hibiscus-like flowers are 4–8 cm in diameter, with 5 white to yellow petals, often with a red or purple spot at the base of each petal.
The fruit is a capsule up to about 20 cm long, containing numerous seeds. The seed pods rapidly become fibrous and woody, and, to be edible, need to be harvested within a week of the flower being pollinated.
The products of the okra plant are mucilaginous, resulting in a characteristic slime when the seed pods are cooked, and the mucilage contains a usable form of soluble fibre. Some people like the mucilage, but others prefer to minimize it in the cooking, by keeping the pods intact and cooking very briefly, often adding acidic ingredients like a few drops of lemon juice to help.
Alternately, the pods can be sliced and cooked for a long time so that the mucilage dissolves, as in the stew called gumbo. The cooked leaves are often used as a soup thickener.
This is a food plant for the larvae of Earias vittella (the Spotted Bollworm moth).
Photographs taken 2012, Picnic Bay
Page last updated 26th June 2018