An Okra Story

gardenlad(6b KY)November 15, 2006

This must be the year of the okra.

I was out at the National Small Farm Conference, making a presentation, and at least 20 people who stopped by my booth wanted to discuss okra. Okra varieties, okra culturing, okra on the table.

Nothing wrong with that, except I sold out of the okra seed I'd brought too quickly.

However, I was gifted with Fife Creek Cowhorn, by Mike Dixon, of Mercer, TN. From the description it's likely the typical Texas Cowhorn type. But it comes with a great story.

Back in the day, an elderly Creek woman, from the Nations, was visiting with the Fife family, south of Jackson, MS. When she returned home she left these seeds behind as a gift, because the Fifes had been so nice to her. The family has been growing them ever since.

Four years ago, Mike's father married a Fife, who brought the seed with her. Both Mike and his dad have grown them every year since the wedding.

I did some quick research. The Indian Nations were reorganized in 1890, into Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory. Which means the Fifes have been growing this okra for at least 116 years.

I'll definately be trialing it this season. But did want to share that story.

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Many of the Creeks ended up in this neck of the woods, right next to the Cherokee Nation. Their own name for themselves is transliterated "Muskogee," as in the name of the city 1/2 hour south of here. That's the capital of the Creek Nation, if I'm not mistaken. I'm not sure of the time frame for the Creeks, but the Cherokee mostly arrived here just before the Civil war.

I was visiting an older Cherokee fellow, a couple of weeks ago, and he showed me his garden (one of the best I've seen in this area). He had a Cowhorn Okra plant that was at least 12 feet tall!

Tahlequah, OK

    Bookmark   November 15, 2006 at 12:54PM
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gardenlad(6b KY)

A bit more that "just" before the late unpleasantness, George.

The Cherokee were forcibly removed in 1838, almost a quarter century before the war. Although the Cherokee had a constitution modeled on that of the U.S., and lived their lives pretty much like their white neighbors (even to the point of owning black slaves), when gold was discovered on their lands (in Georgia) they had to go. Many died along the way. Trail of Tears beans are, of course, an heirloom they took with them on that miserable trip west.

The Creeks were the ones Andy Jackson had his problems with, and the issue over which he and Davy Crocket went their separate ways. Because he fought with the popular Jackson over the Indian issue, Crocket lost the next election, and went on to achieve fame by dying at the Alamo. Not the last Tenneseen for whom death was a good career move.

The Creeks and Cherokee (along with three others) from the southeastern U.S. are culturally and ethnologically related. In the Nations they were known as the five civilized tribes.

Incredible how everything is related to everything else, ain't it.

    Bookmark   November 15, 2006 at 2:27PM
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"The Creeks and Cherokee (along with three others) from the southeastern U.S. are culturally and ethnologically related. In the Nations they were known as the five civilized tribes."

Choctaw, Seminole and Chickasaw are the other three. Though Oklahoma has quite a number of other tribes. Recently I read an article about one of the Iroquois group negotiating with either the Cherokee or Creek, in an attempt to establish some official "territory" for themselves. I didn't understand how it all worked.

License plates, here in Oklahoma are interesting as each recognized nation has their own special Oklahoma license plate. I can't remember all the nations I've seen represented on license plates.

It's going to take me some time to get familiar with some of the cultural things here, though having lived among indigenous folk in Mexico is a good head start. WikipediaÂs article on Chief John Ross makes an interested allusion to the "Cherokee way" of coming of decision making, which REALLY reminds me of some of the long meetings I sat through, out in the Sierra North of Puebla. IÂd love to know if the way it was in Ross time is anything like it is now.

What I find so interesting about the Cherokee and Creeks (two most numerous groups here in Tahlequah) is that they are so western compared to groups in Mexico, such as the Totonac and Nahuatl. I don't know how much of that is simply unique to their own cultures and how much comes from long contact with European/Americans.

YouÂre right, everything is related!

    Bookmark   November 16, 2006 at 12:33PM
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This is also an interesting counterpoint on the origins of okra. Malvaceae or Hibiscus family, related to mallow, cotton, rose of sharon, and numerous other flowering plants. Okra originated in Africa and was brought to the new world in the 1600's but was not popularly cultivated except among French immigrants (Louisiana) until the late 1800's.

So its not native to the U.S., but was cultivated and adopted by native Americans by the early 1800's.

My M-I-L has an okra variety that has been in her family for 50 or more years. I tried it this year but found it has some defects that limit use. The number one problem was time to first production. It was 2 weeks later than other standard varieties in this area. This would limit production to the southern tier of states.

I grew out the African okra that you sent me Gardenlad. Its a relatively spiny but incredibly ornamental okra. I have some seed saved from plants crossed with Cowhorn. Maybe in a few generations I'll have a huge non-spiny plant with lots of production and those gorgeous red/green dinner plate sized leaves.


    Bookmark   November 18, 2006 at 10:39PM
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gardenlad(6b KY)

Hey, Fusion. Good to hear from you. I've been wondering where you disappeared to.

>but was not popularly cultivated except among French immigrants (Louisiana) until the late 1800's.And among slaves and free blacks, of course.

Oddly enough, Fearing Burr lists it in his 1863 "Field & Garden Vegetables of America," and includes 4 named varieties.

I say oddly because Burr was a provincial New Englander who generally excluded stuff not grown in the Northeast, and was primarily concerned with commercial varieties at that. There is, for instance, no mention of cowpeas at all.

The fact that he lists okra, though, indicates that it may have been more widespread and have enjoyed greater popularity than we generally think. Indeed one of the varieties he lists--Buist's Dwarf Okra (aka Country Gentleman) was introduced by a breeder in Philadelphia.
Did you see my comments, on other threads, about Alabama Red? I grew it this past season, and, among okras, it's my new best friend. Unfortunately, I did not get to harvest seed (do you want to talk about rain?). But my original source is sending me more. Next year I'll grow it strictly as a seed crop, I reckon.

If you get a chance, you need to try it.

I haven't grown the African. If it was me that sent you seed, it was shared. But I don't recall either way. In Florida, where my seed source is (originally from Echo, btw), it grows as a perennial. Until she moved it covered the wall of a garage and never stopped producing.

    Bookmark   November 19, 2006 at 8:07AM
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I have a package of Alabama Red in the freezer waiting for next year to roll around. I've had the seed 2 years and its up for growing in 2007. I will also grow Cowhorn and the Cowhorn/African cross but with lots of space between them so crossing is not a problem. Bakers Creek carries Alabama Red if anyone is interested in seed.

What I liked most about the African okra is the huge nearly round green/red leaves on some of the plants. I've been working on that ornamental aspect with the crosses. I'd really like to select out a plant that grows as tall and spineless as my Cowhorn select and has the incredible visual appeal of the African.




    Bookmark   November 19, 2006 at 4:07PM
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"Okra originated in Africa and was brought to the new world in the 1600's but was not popularly cultivated except among French immigrants (Louisiana) until the late 1800's."

I bet there is another link between Africa and the New Word. When walking the trails between villages in coastal and central Mexico, in hot country, I would frequently see okra growing wild. The folk there referred to it as "Café Castilla" meaning Castillan Coffee. They DIDN'T know that the pods could be eaten. I never met anyone in the region who did, until informed by a foreigner. Instead, they would harvest and toast the dry seed for a coffee substitute.

That okra got to the coast of Mexico somehow, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't used for food on a plantation. If it had, everyone would be eating it now. It's an interesting mystery to my way of thinking : )

Tahlequah, OK

    Bookmark   November 20, 2006 at 2:09PM
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In West Africa, all parts of the Okra plant are used: the pods of course but also the leaves (as a vegetable or in sauces and soups); the flowers - either fresh or dried - to thicken sauces and soups; the dry seeds to make a coffee substitute and the dried bark to make fiber (similar to its relative Kenaf).
Speaking of Coffee, in the Chiapas region I saw seeds of Mucuna pruriens for sale as "Nescafe" but I don't know how they prepared them before brewing...

    Bookmark   November 20, 2006 at 6:32PM
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I didn't know about using the leaves. It'd be great to get a recipe.

Mucuna pruriens, the velvet bean, in at least some parts of Mexico is also known by the name "pica pica" (meaning it stings and/or itches, really! because of the irritating hairs on the wild kinds)and also known by "Nescafe," because it is used extensively as a coffee substitute. My understanding is that the seeds are simply toasted till quite brown, ground and then used like coffee. I haven't done this, so I don't know if their is a skin to be pealed off or not.

Some have advised caution in this usage, as the velvet bean can be toxic. My guess is that toasting destroys the toxin. Generations of campesinos aren't likely to be wrong about its use as a beverage. Our son, still smarting over my extensive experimentation with soy and garbanzo for food and coffee substitute, routinely comments that ANYTHING burnt and run through a filter will make "coffee."

Incidentally, one of the jokes our Mexican friends used to tell, when asking for "Nescafe," is to call pronounce the word No-es-cafe, meaning "It's not (really) coffee!"

    Bookmark   November 21, 2006 at 1:27PM
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Thanks for the "Nescafe" recipes but I think I'll pass... Coffee substitutes to me are on a par with some homebrews, vegetarian sausages, margarine etc, etc..

For the Okra leaves recipes (and other unusual greens) in African recipes, the best place is the Congo Cookbook. The way I had it was in Palaver Sauce and in Tomato and Peanut sauce.

Here is a link that might be useful: Congo Cookbook

    Bookmark   November 21, 2006 at 6:38PM
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gardenlad(6b KY)

Just a slight update on the Fife Creek Cowhorn.

I was in communication with Mike Dixon, re: the dating. He said the Creek woman had been visiting ca. 1900. They still referred to the area as "The Nations" out of habit, even though the name had technically changed.

Even so, we're talking about 106 years in the same Mississippi family.

    Bookmark   November 23, 2006 at 8:16AM
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zeedman Zone 5 Wisconsin

An interesting historical thread. I've bookmarked the Congo recipes (and the Peace Corps cookbook also found there) for possible experimentation in the future. Nice link, Rose!

Macmax, this is a slight deviation OT... but I am interested in hearing about the soy experiments you refered to. Perhaps you could respond on the Bean Forum? I'm gathering that the roasting for "coffee" did not go well, but I'm wondering what other food trials you might have conducted with soybeans.

    Bookmark   November 23, 2006 at 4:15PM
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We have had excellent luck with our Alabama Red this year in Tennessee. It is thriving in a poor soil area of our garden. And, it is an absolutely beautiful plant.

Here is a link that might be useful: Life has taught us ...

    Bookmark   June 29, 2007 at 10:51PM
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All these great okra stories have convinced me to share a story that I found on the internet in the summer of 2007. As a result of that find, I grew out seed in 2008 and have a 2nd crop planted this year. I saved seed from last year and also have 6 plants of the original seed growing now.

Due to the original find being a copyrighted story that was published in Oct. 2006 from a North Carolina newspaper, this must be paraphrased. As I had known, not all the Cherokee went west. So, I'm very honored to have found this heirloom and to be able to work to preserve it.

The OkraMan was 79 at the time and died in April of 2007. The story was that he has been growing seed of an okra that was obtained from his grandmother, "a full-blooded Cherokee" and passed through her d-i-l to her son, The OkraMan. The story quoted The OkraMan as growing 64 stalks of a very tall and well branched antique variety. On 1 stalk they counted a total of 27 pods. Seems that a local TV station had run a story saying that okra should only be eaten if it was less than 4" long. The OkraMan and his family declared this okra to be tender to 10". Stalks were quoted to be 5" in diameter at the base and that as a child in Pamlico County where he grew up it had grown wild on a ditch bank near a barnyard and reseeded itself being tall and strong enough for the lad to climb in. He thought some folks might find that hard to believe.

He believed the variety to be at least 175 years old, perhaps older. He could trace his history back that far to a farm on Mill Pond Road where his grandfather first settled and apparently married his grandmother.

It is indeed a tasty, productive okra. Not quite what I remember that my mother grew, but unfortunately I lost the seed of that cultivar in a move many years ago.

Hope you enjoy the story. Photos of The OkraMan and some of his family are in the link.

Here is a link that might be useful: Zane Rice photos

    Bookmark   June 25, 2009 at 6:25PM
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Do you have seed of that okra available?


    Bookmark   June 27, 2009 at 9:58AM
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