Okra, Abelmoschus esculentus, is an herbaceous annual plant in the family Malvaceae which is grown for its edible seed pods. Okra plants have small erect stems that can be bristly or hairless with heart-shaped leaves.
The seed pod is a capsule up to 25 cm (10 in) long, containing numerous seeds. Okra's flowers are yellow with five-pointed petals and three fused carpels. The two ovaries form into one seed which is part of the fruit, or what we call okra.
Okra is native to tropical Africa, probably western Nigeria. It spread early to other parts of tropical and subtropical regions around the world. Today, it is now cultivated worldwide in tropical, semitropical, and warm temperate climates.
The fresh pods are composed mostly of water (92%) and nearly 4% protein. Okra is rich in vitamin C (containing 51.2 mg/100 g) and vitamin A (beta-carotene) (235 mcg/100 g). The fruit contains some calcium, iron, thiamine, riboflavin, nicotinic acid, phosphorus, and ascorbic acid.
The exact place of origin of the genus is not known, and it has been difficult to locate because of the long history of cultivation. The area where it most likely originated is probably in the Sudan region, where okra still grows wild; this would be between Egypt and Ethiopia.
Okra may have entered southwest Asia across the Red Sea or the Bab-el-Mandeb strait to the Arabian Peninsula, rather than north across the Sahara. Alternatively, it may have come from India where it is known as "lady's finger" and was introduced around 1600 by Portuguese traders in West Africa.
The tender, succulent shoots are steamed briefly and eaten whole as a vegetable throughout Asia, especially in Vietnam where they are called "bắp cải xanh". The young leaves can also be used raw in salads. The flavor of these shoots resembles that of cucumber.
The flower blooms most extensively in hot weather but will bloom throughout the growing season if the temperature is not too cold. The plant prefers to grow in sandy soil with good drainage and abundant moisture. This plant will tolerate light frosts, but not long periods of frost. If night temperatures are expected to drop below 10° C, the plant should be covered.
The Moche people of ancient Peru worshipped nature. They often depicted okra in their art. The harvested fruit was cooked with other vegetables and meat to make a spicy stew. Before being eaten, it was offered on plates placed before statues of male or female deities. Okra is also said to help fertility and is sometimes given to newlyweds after a wedding.