1. Family: Malvaceae Juss.
    1. Genus: Abelmoschus Medik.
      1. Abelmoschus esculentus (L.) Moench

        Okra is a cultigen (a plant that has been altered by humans through a process of selective breeding). The exact origin of okra is unknown, but it is thought to have come from Africa, where it has been grown as a crop for centuries. Evidence suggests it was grown in Egypt as long ago as 2,000 BC. Today it is widely cultivated for its edible green fruits, which are harvested when immature (after 3–5 days of development), and are infamous for their slimy mucilage.


    Malvaceae, A. W. Exell. Flora Zambesiaca 1:2. 1961

    Annual herb up to 2 m. tall; stems succulent, setulose.
    Leaf-lamina up to 25 × 25 cm., suborbicular in outline, palmatifid, -lobed or -sect, sparsely to densely setulose or setose-pilose on both surfaces especially on the nerves, margins serrate, base cuneate to cordate; petiole up to 30 cm. long; stipules up to 15 mm. long, filiform, densely pilose.
    Flowers up to 8 cm. in diam., yellow with purple centre; peduncle 1–4 cm. long, stout, thickened in fruit.
    Epicalyx of 10–12 bracts; bracts up to 25 × 2·5 mm., narrowly linear-triangular, caducous.
    Calyx 3–4 cm. long, with 5 short linear teeth.
    Petals up to 7–8 cm. long.
    Staminal tube 12–20 mm. long; free parts of filaments up to 0·5 mm. long.
    Style projecting up to 1 mm. beyond the staminal tube.
    Capsule up to 14 cm. long, ellipsoid to very narrowly ellipsoid, at first appressed-setose and pubescent, later glabrescent.
    Seeds 5 × 4 mm., depressed-globose, slightly humped, with concentric lines of minute stellate hairs or scales and sometimes pilose.

    Kew Species Profiles

    General Description
    Okra is valued for its edible green fruits, said to be shaped like lady's fingers - one of its common names in British English.

    Okra is a cultigen (a plant that has been altered by humans through a process of selective breeding). The exact origin of okra is unknown, but it is thought to have come from Africa, where it has been grown as a crop for centuries. Evidence suggests it was grown in Egypt as long ago as 2,000 BC. Today it is widely cultivated for its edible green fruits, which are harvested when immature (after 3–5 days of development), and are infamous for their slimy mucilage.

    Abelmoschus esculentus is also known by the synonym Hibiscus esculentus and the common name lady’s fingers, thought to be a fanciful reference to the slender, finger-shaped fruits of some cultivars.

    The Malvaceae plant family, of which okra is a member, contains many economically important plants. These include cotton ( Gossypium hirsutum), cocoa ( Theobroma cacao), ornamental Hibiscus species, the genus Ceiba (from which kapok fibre is derived), durian fruit ( Durio zibethinus) and balsawood ( Ochroma pyramidale).

    Species Profile
    Geography and distribution

    Available evidence suggests that okra originated in Africa, where the vast majority of primitive forms and wild relatives are found. It is thought likely to have come from the Sahel region, south of the Sahara (from Mali eastwards to Ethiopia).

    Many publications give India as the country of origin, but this is more likely to be a reflection of where it is currently used. There are no names for okra in the classical languages of the Indo-Persian area, suggesting that it probably did not originate there. Later it was introduced to the Americas during the slave trade.

    Okra is widespread in cultivation in the tropics, subtropics and warmer temperate zones. It is particularly popular in Africa, India, the Philippines, Thailand, Brazil, Turkey, Spain and the southern USA. It is naturalised in some areas.

    The related species West African okra ( Abelmoschus manihot) is restricted to the humid and perhumid (wettest) climates of Africa.


    Overview: An annual, erect herb up to 5 m (but typically about 2 m) tall. Stems succulent with scattered, stiff hairs. The whole plant has an aromatic smell resembling cloves.

    Leaves:Up to 50 cm wide and 35 cm long, deeply lobed, with toothed margins, hairy on both surfaces, especially on the nerves. Each leaf is borne on a petiole (leaf stalk) up to 50 cm long.

    Flowers: Showy, up to 8 cm in diameter, usually yellow with a dark red, purple or mauve centre, borne on a stout flower stalk (peduncle) up to 4 cm long. Stamens (male parts) united into a white, hairless column up to 2.5 cm long. Stigmas (female parts) dark purple. Calyx (whorl of sepals) and epicalyx (whorl of bracts) both present.

    Fruits:A capsule, 10–20 cm long, roughly circular in cross-section with a pointed end, usually 5-ribbed, borne at the leaf axils. Immature fruit can be purple-red, reddish-green, dark green, pale green or yellow. At maturity, fruits turn brown and split into segments.

    Seeds: Each fruit has up to 100 spherical or ovoid seeds bearing minute warts in concentric rows.

    Many cultivars are available, for example ‘Clemson Spineless’, ‘Indiana’, ‘Emerald’ (USA) and ‘Pusa Sawani’ (India).

    UsesFood and drink

    Okra is widely used in African, Indian, Middle Eastern and Caribbean cuisine and is also popular in southern parts of the USA (where it is the key ingredient in gumbo).

    Immature fruits are usually boiled, but also fried, steamed, grilled, battered or eaten raw. Fruits are preserved by pickling, or drying and grinding into powder. They are used to make soups, sauces, stews, curries and even salads. Okra is high in fibre and rich in vitamins and minerals, including calcium and vitamin C.

    The pods have a unique flavour and texture and release slimy mucilage on cooking, which can be used to thicken sauces and add smoothness to soups. Okra mucilage has also been used in confectionery and for clarifying sugar cane juice to make molasses in India. The slimy texture is not to everyone’s taste and can be reduced by cooking in salted water.

    Young leaves are sometimes used as a vegetable, in a similar manner to spinach, particularly in West Africa and Southeast Asia. Okra leaves are sometimes dried and ground into powder for storage. Flower buds and petals are sometimes eaten in times of food shortage.

    Okra seeds are often used in place of dried peas, beans or lentils in rice dishes and soups. In Nigeria, seeds are prepared into a food known as dandawan betso. In India, okra seeds are eaten in curries and chutneys.

    Roasted okra seeds are ground and used as a substitute for coffee in some areas. Considered by some to be one of the best coffee substitutes known, it was once widely used in Central America, Africa and Malaysia.

    Traditional medicine

    Leaves and immature fruit have long been used in the East in poultices and applied to relieve pain, moisturise skin, induce sweating, prevent scurvy and treat urinary disorders. In Congo-Brazzaville, a leaf decoction is given for heart pains and to promote delivery during childbirth. Okra root has been used to treat syphilis in Malaya.

    Okra mucilage has been used as a plasma replacement and blood volume expander.To obtain the mucilage, slices of immature pods are placed in water, which is then boiled. The mucilage is an acidic polysaccharide composed of galacturonic acid, rhamnose and glucose and tends to break down when overheated.


    Okra bark yields silky fibre, which is easy to extract. It is white to yellow in colour and strong but rather coarse.

    It can be spun into yarn, rope and sacking and has been used for fishing lines, game traps and hammocks in West Tropical Africa. It has also been used in paper and cardboard production.

    Other uses

    Okra leaves and seed-cake are sometimes used as cattle feed, and the leafy tops are grazed by stock and game.

    Okra mucilage has been added as size to glaze paper in China.

    Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

    The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

    A collection of Abelmoschus esculentusseeds is held in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank based at Wakehurst in West Sussex.

    See Kew’s Seed Information Database for further information on Abelmoschus esculentus seeds 

    This species at Kew

    Dried and spirit-preserved specimens of Abelmoschus esculentus are held in Kew’s Herbarium where they are available to researchers by appointment. The details of some of these specimens can be seen online in Kew’sHerbarium Catalogue.

    Specimens of the seeds and fruits of okra, as well as fibres obtained from it, and paper and rope made from it, are held in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection in the Sir Joseph Banks Building, where they are available to researchers by appointment.

    Kew’s illustration collection includes a painting of okra by Victorian artist Marianne North. The title is Some Fruits and Vegetables used in Brazil, and notes included the following: ‘In front the Ochro ( Hibiscus esculentus L.), the seed-vessels of which are used in thickening soups’.

    Ethiopia, Mali, Niger
    Widespread in cultivation.

    Irritating hairs are sometimes present on leaves and stems, and traces of alkaloid have been reported in leaves.


    Malvaceae, Hutchinson and Dalziel. Flora of West Tropical Africa 1:2. 1958

    A cultivated, or subspontaneous herb
    Long-stalked, usually 5-lobed leaves
    Flowers large, yellow, with purple or red centre.
    Food, fibre, traditional medicine.



    Found In:

    Bangladesh, India, Myanmar

    Introduced Into:

    Alabama, Albania, Andaman Is., Angola, Bahamas, Benin, Borneo, Bulgaria, Burkina, Cambodia, Cape Verde, Cayman Is., Central African Repu, Chad, China South-Central, China Southeast, Congo, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Eritrea, Fiji, Gabon, Gambia, Greece, Guinea-Bissau, Gulf of Guinea Is., Hainan, Haiti, Illinois, Ivory Coast, Jamaica, Jawa, Krym, KwaZulu-Natal, Leeward Is., Malaya, Mali, Marianas, Mauritania, Mexico Southwest, Mozambique, Nicobar Is., Niger, Nigeria, Northern Provinces, Oman, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Romania, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South European Russi, Southwest Caribbean, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Ukraine, Venezuela, Venezuelan Antilles, Windward Is., Zambia, Zaïre, Zimbabwe

    Common Names


    Abelmoschus esculentus (L.) Moench appears in other Kew resources:

    Date Identified Reference Herbarium Specimen Type Status
    Kenya 7171.000

    First published in Methodus: 617 (1794)

    Accepted in:

    • [1] Darbyshire, I., Kordofani, M., Farag, I., Candiga, R. & Pickering, H. (eds.) (2015) The Plants of Sudan and South Sudan . Kew publishing, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
    • [2] Mohlenbrock, R.H. (2014) Vascular Flora of Illinois. A Field Guide , ed. 4: 1-536. Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale
    • [3] (2013) PhytoKeys 23: 1-18
    • [4] (2012) Indian Journal of Forestry 35: 79-84
    • [5] (2012) Smithsonian Contributions to Botany 98: 1-1192
    • [6] (2012) Webbia; Raccolta de Scritti Botanici 67: 65-91
    • [7] Garcia-Mendoza, A.J. & Meave, J.A. (eds.) (2012) Diversidad florística de Oaxaca: de musgos a angiospermas (colecciones y listas de especies) , ed. 2: 1-351. Instituto de Biología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
    • [8] (2011) Bothalia, A Journal of Botanical Research 41: 41-82
    • [10] (2010) Journal of Economic and Taxonomic Botany 34: 42-68
    • [11] (2010) Taxonomania 29: 1-41
    • [12] (2010) Taxonomania 30: 1-307
    • [14] (2009) Flora of Tropical East Africa , Malvaceae: 1-170
    • [16] (2008) Journal of Economic and Taxonomic Botany 32: 403-500
    • [17] (2008) Strelitzia 22: 1-279. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria
    • [18] Hokche, O., Berry, P.E. & Huber, O. (eds.) (2008) Nuevo Catálogo de la Flora Vascular de Venezuela . Fundación Instituto Botánico de Venezuela
    • [20] Nelson Sutherland, C.H. (2008) Catálogo de las plantes vasculares de Honduras. Espermatofitas . SERNA/Guaymuras, Tegucigalpa, Honduras
    • [21] Flora of China Editorial Committee (2007) Flora of China 12: 1-534. Science Press (Beijing) & Missouri Botanical Garden Press (St. Louis)
    • [22] (2006) Garcia de Orta, Série de Botânica 17: 97-141
    • [23] Akoègninou, A., van der Burg, W.J. & van der Maesen, L.J.G. (eds.) (2006) Flore Analytique du Bénin . Backhuys Publishers
    • [28] (2003) Strelitzia 14: 1-1231. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria
    • [29] Dy Phon, P. (2000) Dictionnaire des plantes utilisées au Cambodge . chez l'auteur, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
    • [31] (1995) Flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea 2(2): 1-456. The National Herbarium, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia & The Department of Systematic Botany, Upps
    • [33] Govaerts, R. (1995) World Checklist of Seed Plants 1(1, 2): 1-483, 529. MIM, Deurne
    • [34] (1993) Sommerfeltia 17: 1-295
    • [35] Cervantes Aceves, N. (1992) La Familia Malvaceae en el Estado de Jalisco, Mexico . Editorial Universidad de Guadalajara
    • [39] Brunel, J.F., Hiepo, P. & Scholz, H. (eds.) (1984) Flore Analytique du Togo Phanérogames: 1-751. GTZ, Eschborn
    • [43] Tutin, T.G. & al. (eds.) (1968) Flora Europaea 2: 1-469. Cambridge University Press
    • [44] (1961) Flora Zambesiaca 1(2): 337-581. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
    • [46] (1948-1963) Flore du Congo Belge et du Ruanda-Urundi 1-10: null


    • [9] Kral, R., Diamond, A.R., Ginzbarg, S.L., Hansen, C.J., Haynes, R.R., Keener, B.R., Lelong, M.G., Spaulding, D.D. & Woods, M. (2011) Annotated checklist of the vascular plants of Alabama . Botanical reseach institute of Texas
    • [13] Düzyaman, E. (2010) Okra: botany and horticulture. In: Horticultural Reviews, Volume 21, ed. J. Janick, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Oxford, UK.
    • [15] Vaughan, J. G. & Geissler, C. A. (2009). The New Oxford Book of Food Plants. 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
    • [19] Mabberley, D. J. (2008). Mabberley’s Plant-book: a Portable Dictionary of Plants, their Classification and Uses. 3rd Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
    • [24] National Research Council (2006). Lost Crops of Africa, Volume 2: Vegetables. The National Academies Press, Washington D.C.
    • [25] Sita, P. & Moutsambote, J.-M. (2005) Catalogue des plantes vasculaires du Congo , ed. sept. 2005: 1-158. ORSTOM, Centre de Brazzaville
    • [26] Van Wyk, B-E. (2005). Food Plants of the World: An Illustrated Guide. Timber Press, Inc., Portland, Oregon.
    • [27] Siemonsma, J. S. & Kouamé, C. (2004). Abelmoschus esculentus (L.) Moench. [Internet] Record from PROTA4U. Grubben, G.J.H. & Denton, O.A. (eds), PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands.
    • [30] Burkill, H. M. (1997). The Useful Plants of West Tropical Africa, 2nd Edition, Volume 4, Families M–R. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, UK.
    • [32] Gonzalez, F., Nelson Diaz, J. & Lowry, P. (1995) Flora Illustrada de San Andrés y Providencia . Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Instituto de Ciencias Naturales, Colombia
    • [36] Jones, M. (1991) A checklist of Gambian plants . Michael Jones, The Gambia College
    • [37] Lebrun, J.p., Toutain, B., Gaston, A. & Boudet, G. (1991) Catalogue des Plantes Vasculaires du Burkina Faso . Institut d' Elevage et de Médecine Vétérinaire des Pays Tropicaux, Maisons Alfort
    • [38] Boudet, G., Lebrun, J.P. & Demange, R. (1986) Catalogue des plantes vasculaires du Mali . Etudes d'Elevage et de Médecine Vétérinaire des Pays Tropicaux
    • [40] Boulvert, Y. (1977) Catalogue de la Flore de Centrafrique 2(1): 1-85. ORSTROM, Bangui
    • [41] Peyre de Fabregues, B. & Lebrun, J.-P. (1976) Catalogue des Plantes Vascularies du Niger . Institut d' Elevage et de Médecine Vétérinaire des Pays Tropicaux, Maisons Alfort
    • [42] Lebrun, J.-P., Audru, J., Gaston, A. & Mosnier, M. (1972) Catalogue des Plantes Vasculaires du Tchad Méridional . Institut d' Elevage et de Médecine Vétérinaire des Pays Tropicaux, Maisons Alfort
    • [45] (1954-1958) Flora of West Tropical Africa , ed. 2, 1: 1-828


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