JANINE PINEO

Where were you, Hibiscus esculentus, when they handed out names?

A number of Okra varieties are available from Seed Savers Exchange, including ‘Star of David.’
Courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange
A number of Okra varieties are available from Seed Savers Exchange, including ‘Star of David.’
Posted Jan. 27, 2012, at 8:52 p.m.
A number of Okra varieties are available from Seed Savers Exchange, including ‘Clemson Spineless.’
Courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange
A number of Okra varieties are available from Seed Savers Exchange, including ‘Clemson Spineless.’
A number of Okra varieties are available from Seed Savers Exchange, including ‘Hill Country Red.’
Courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange
A number of Okra varieties are available from Seed Savers Exchange, including ‘Hill Country Red.’
A number of Okra varieties are available from Seed Savers Exchange, including ‘Red Burgundy.’
Courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange
A number of Okra varieties are available from Seed Savers Exchange, including ‘Red Burgundy.’
A number of Okra varieties are available from Seed Savers Exchange, including ‘Silver Queen.’
Courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange
A number of Okra varieties are available from Seed Savers Exchange, including ‘Silver Queen.’

Sometimes I think a vegetable gets a bad name.

Literally.

Take the parsnip.

It sounds a bit harsh with that whole “nip” thing. I am not forgetting that the taste can be somewhat repellent if the root isn’t sweetened up by a good frost or two, but still. That name.

Turnip? Same deal.

Rutabaga is not much better.

Beet?

Ouch.

I suppose we all could switch to botanical names and see if that makes a difference in how people react to certain vegetables, but Beta vulgaris would probably only confirm that people were right to feel as they do about the rather lovely beet.

However, for one vegetable it might work wonders for its image if you had to call it Hibiscus esculentus.

Aren’t you picturing tropical flowers gently swaying in a warm breeze, maybe a white sand beach and a turquoise lagoon?

Hey, pass me the okra.

See?

Poor okra and its “slimy” reputation.

I’ve grown okra a few times over the years, and my biggest problem was not knowing what to do with the pods. I knew about gumbo, but that was it. So I used the crop in soups where that slimy quality helped to thicken the broth a bit.

Thanks, mucilaginous trait.

Not that I ever had such a huge crop that I had to start looking for unsuspecting passers-by to heave a bagful at. Okra is a heat-loving plant and thus doesn’t go bonkers in our northerly climes.

But you can get a decent crop with a little care.

You could start the seed indoors, but you’ll have just as good a chance if you direct seed when the ground is nice and warm (more than 60 degrees) and all chance of frost is past. Most varieties only need a couple of months to produce pods, so a mid-June planting would give it more than enough time to bear fruit. In a good year, my plants neared 4 feet tall.

But here’s the thing most people don’t even suspect.

Okra is a beautiful plant.

The stem is straight and sturdy, with lobed leaves in a rich green. Because it is in the mallow family, the flowers look a bit too perfect to be real. It isn’t Hibiscus esculentus for no reason, you know.

The fruit is the final act. Once the pods develop, they stick out all over like spiky hair. Which is why the okra collection at Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org) is breathtaking to behold.

They come in different colors.

‘Star of David’ is an Israeli heirloom so named because a cross-section looks like the Star of David formed from the deep ribs. Its color is snap-pea green, although the leaves have a bit of purple on them.

‘Hill Country Red’ is a different story. The catalog says the stems of the plants are red and the resulting pods are green, tinged with red in all sorts of wacky ways: from great splotches to a bit of blush to a line along each rib edge. Whatever mood strikes that particular pod, well, there you are.

For a full showing of red, try ‘Red Burgundy,’ where the plant has burgundy accents and the pods are a full, lush red. The flowers are gorgeous, too, a buttery color touched with — what else — burgundy.

Its nearly polar opposite would be ‘Silver Queen,’ This variety is described in the catalog as “ivory-green” with the resulting silvery effect on the pods. The look is cool and probably striking when those pods hit 7 inches long.

Seed Savers’ other offering is a longtime standard, introduced back in 1939. ‘Clemson Spineless’ is pea-green variety, too, with some touches of burgundy here and there.

But wait, you say. “Spineless?”

Ah, yes, nature gave okra another reason for people to avoid it. The plant has spines. Seed Savers describes them as prickly on the stems and pods.

I recommend a pair of gloves.

Or a packet of ‘Clemson Spineless.’

Recipe suggestion

An easy suggestion for cooking okra is to roast it. Slice pods about a third of an inch wide, toss it in a bit of olive oil, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Spread it out on a sheet pan and cook at 425 degrees for about 15 minutes.

I haven’t tried it with okra, but I plan to, since roasting is my latest thing (kale, asparagus, potatoes, carrots, zucchini, green beans and so on). It makes vegetables sizzle.

jpineo@bangordailynews.com, www.janinepineo.com.

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