Okra and rosella
9 Mar 2022
These two closely related food plants of the hibiscus family do really well in this area. They are some of the most heat and drought hardy in the world once established. They have hardly any pest or disease problems. They are really easy and fast to grow. They love full sun and aren’t bothered by soil type. Both the leaves and the fruits are edible. There’s a lot to like from a food resilience point of view.
As heat loving plants, their seeds need quite warm soil to get going. Also, their seeds have a tough outer coating which makes germination slow. Scarification and pre soaking will speed up how long they take to sprout.
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Okra / lady fingers
Okra pods are renowned or reviled for their mucilaginous effect when cooked. They’re either great for thickening soups and stews, or vile and slimy depending on your point of view. If you want to thin the gelatinous effect, cook okra with acidic ingredients such as tomato or soak in vinegar beforehand. Acid thins the viscosity.
The leaves, especially the young ones, can be used as spinach raw or cooked but are better cooked. They also have that mucilaginous effect when cooked. The seeds have been used as a non-caffeinated coffee substitute after roasting and grinding.
Any variety of okra should do fine here. Spineless varieties are recommended otherwise pods need to be trimmed of prickly spines before cooking. It is possible that varieties from India make more pods. Okra can be day length sensitive – with both short day and long day varieties which is something to watch out for. A commonly available variety, Clemson Spineless, does well here. It is both spineless and is one of the day neutral varieties which will flower and fruit from planting right through until it’s killed by frost in May or even June without taking any notice of how many daylight hours there are.
Okra is a tropical plant with no tolerance for frost. It loves the warm season and can tolerate very hot temperatures. Commercially it is mostly grown in the NT but also in other areas such as NW Victoria. It is a hardy unfussy plant. It can be a perennial in frost free areas much warmer than ours.
So, sow okra after frost. It’s best to have them in during September / October here. They will need a soil temperature of 20°C for germination. Scarify (nick or scratch the outer coating only and avoid the belly button) the seeds and soak them in warm water overnight. They have a hard seed coat which keeps water out and makes germination very slow – 3 weeks for unsoaked or old and soaked seeds. Or 1 week for fresh and soaked seeds.
Then plant the seeds 1 – 2cm deep. You can wait to see which ones begin to sprout before planting. As seedlings they don’t like having their roots disturbed and will pause growing if this happens so direct sowing is best. Or start them in large (or biodegradable) pots and transplant when about 15cm high. They are tall skinny plants, just poles with leaf-hands, usually 2m though sometimes up to 4m depending on the variety. Spacing can be just 30 – 60cm. You will want at least half a dozen plants.
This is a plant who thrives in full sun. They will grow in part shade but will not make anywhere near as many pods. They can be susceptible to wind damage and may need some protection. Okra will grow in most soils and do best in well drained lighter soils, pH between 5.8 and 7, preferably a little acidic. Large containers are acceptable.
Young okra need plenty of water to establish and then will tolerate intermittent watering or drought though the number of pods will be reduced if they are trying to flower or fruit at that time. While they are super hardy during dry times, too much rain and wet soil will do them in. In extended wet weather the maturing fruits will rot off the plant. The plants don’t appreciate our flooding rains but they don’t give up immediately either. Mature plants can suffer from overwatering which results in root rot (ensure great drainage) or stem rot (water around not on the plant). Okra can succumb to verticillium wilt which is shared with solanaceae like tomato and eggplant. Don’t plant any of these in the same spot for four years.
Growing okra don’t need rich soil but will grow faster if fed well. They only need a bit of food to begin with and a liquid feed every few weeks. Nothing onerous. Strangely they most need nitrogen. Strange as this is usually the demand of leafy veg, not fruiting ones. Each leaf stem will grow one pod. Big healthy leaves feed the pods. The more leaves, the more pods.
Okra is fast growing. Plants can start to make pods from just 8 weeks after sowing. They will continue this all warm season long. Here it is best to grow them fast as young plants so that by the time our monsoonal rains often arrive in late summer, they are mostly done. You can lop their main stem to chest height to keep them from getting too tall and keep pod picking in reach.
Pick okra pods when they are quite young, only a week old. This may need to be every day. As a bonus, the more you pick, the more pods the plant will create and the longer the picking season. Young pods only 5 – 8cm long are ideal. The pods quickly harden with age and become too fibrous to be enjoyable. Gently squeeze pods before picking. Young pods suitable for eating will yield. Older pods with too much fibre will hold their stiffness against your pressure. You will quickly learn to judge the turning point. Another test is to snap off the tip. If it comes off easily, the pod is young enough.
You may need to wear gloves when picking. The plant sap can be a skin irritant, some varieties have irritating hairs or spines and the pods can bruise and later blacken easily.
Okra is a difficult vegetable commercially as it bruises so easily and only stores refrigerated for three days. Don’t wash before storage as this will cause the pods to rot. Don’t store with produce such as bananas, melons or mangoes that give off ethylene gas as this causes accelerated ripening / shorter storage time. The pods can be blanched and cooled and frozen for up to 6 months.
Any pods you miss picking in time will be suitable for seed saving. Let them mature, go brown and dry and the seeds will start rattling in the pod. Ideally save the first few pods from the best plants to encourage early podding in future generations.
Rosella / roselle / sorrel
An underappreciated plant who thrives in this area with no major pests or diseases. The leaves, flower petals and calyxes (the fleshy skin around the seed pod, or the ‘fruit’) are all edible. The leaves have a strong lemony flavour, the young pale green ones are best, and the calyxes make a highly regarded jam, tea and cordial with a unique flavour somewhat like cranberry and rhubarb. Leaves and calyx can be eaten raw or cooked.
Confusingly, rosella is both called a native Australian plant and a native of West Africa. As far as I can make out, it originated in Africa and was brought to the top end of Australia thousands of years ago. Long enough ago to have become naturalised and incorporated into the Aboriginal cultures in those areas.
There are no named varieties. Plant whatever you can get your hands on and save the seeds for next year. Around here this is an annual. In warmer frost free places rosella will last for 2 – 3 years.
Rosella is an easy to grow warm season plant who needs a good 5 months or more of warm weather to make an abundance of ‘fruit’. These are created in roughly two flushes. One while the weather is summery. This is a warm up. Pick these, maybe give the plant a medium prune and wait. The second and main flush of generous abundance happens as the weather begins to cool. About half a dozen plants should result in almost two buckets of fruit. Individual plants can be fickle though. Sometimes a bush is a dud. Skip these ones for seed saving.
Sow seeds in trays after frost. The soil temperature needs to be 25°C for the seeds to germinate. They don’t have the best germination rate – only around 65%. Like okra they have a hard seed coating. Seeds can be scarified which improves the germination rate. Then soak the seeds in warm water for an hour or more and sow just over 1cm deep. They can take a week or three to germinate.
Once the seedlings are large enough to not be succulent morsels for rats or possums, and strong enough to withstand being flattened by heavy rainfall, they are ready to plant out. Let them get to at least 10cm tall and have at least four true leaves. They will grow into a rather bushy shrub, a good metre across and up to two metres tall. They can be planted quite close together but a spacing of about 90cm is recommended.
Rosella can be grown in any soil as long as it’s well drained. While they generally appreciate rich soil they have a hankering for potassium. I guess they do make a lot of fruits for their size and that is the main mineral for fruit-making. They most like low phosphorus, moderate nitrogen, and high potassium. Fertilise every two to three weeks if you remember. If the leaves are turning brown at the tips, that is a sign they are getting too much nitrogen.
The seedlings need plenty of water to establish then they become drought tolerant. Ideally, water them regularly until they start to flower. Then only water if the leaves are looking droopy. In extended monsoonal wet weather the maturing fruits will rot off the plant.
Rosellas should be in flower about 7 or 8 weeks after germinating. After another 3 or 4 weeks the calyxes will be ready to pick. So about 3 months in total after planting. Make sure to pick the calyxes while they are still fleshy and plump. They will thin and dry as the seed pod inside matures. When the tip is just starting to open is ideal. Before the ants like exploring inside.
To save seed, leave a few calyxes on the plant to mature, brown and dry out.
Big thanks to:
Supported by Bellingen Shire Council via the Bellingen Shire Disaster Recovery and Resilience Grant Program Funding
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