Moody Family Okra
Origin: West Africa (via Missouri?)
Improvement status: Landrace Cultivar
Seeds per packet: ~55
Germination tested 11/2023: 98%
Life cycle: Annual
What we don't know about this okra could no doubt probably fill a book — and that's really saying something, because what we do know is fascinating. We first received these seeds from our dear friend Kris Hubbard of Wild Wood Farms in Artemus, Kentucky. Kris is a prolific seed-saver who has been collecting seeds since his youth, while also stewarding his father's and grandfather's seed collections. When Kris comes to a gathering of "seed people" (like us), jaws drop and eyes widen as he spreads his seeds across as many tables as he can find — and then spreads more out on the floor if he must. He's always incredibly generous with his seeds, giving away millions of seeds every year and sharing so much information along the way.
Often Kris passes along seeds with incredibly detailed narratives attached to them, beautifully handwritten on each packet. Sometimes his seeds have hardly any information — and in those cases (as in this one) the details are invariably tantalizing. Kris reports that this okra comes from the Moody family of Missouri, an African American family whom he was told passed this okra down through their family for generations, tracing all the way back to West Africa — before their ancestors were enslaved. Kris either never knew or didn't record his original source for these seeds, but we don't believe that's any reason to doubt the veracity of the story that traveled with these beans across generations. In fact, we actually have one amazing piece of evidence bolstering the story: that this okra is nothing like almost every other okra variety grown in the US. Indeed, it's a whole different species.
Okra was almost certainly first brought to this continent by enslaved African people. The oral tradition of their descendants recounts women braiding seeds of important crops like okra into their hair before the horrific journey across the ocean. Mirroring the severing of family ties and ancestral connections forced on African people stolen into slavery, we know nothing of where exactly this okra originated or by whom it was developed or grown. But we do know that it's a little-known species called Abelmoschus caillei — and not the typical okra species, Abelmoschus esculentus.
A. caillei — commonly referred to as "West African Okra" in English, though all okra comes from West Africa originally — is believed to be the result of an ancient hybridization between A. esculentus and A. manihot. Manihot is the okra cousin grown mainly for its leaves — we sell two varieties of this species, one from Korea and one from Japan) — which can cross with okra on occasion. The easiest way to tell the difference between regular okra and West African okra, apparently, requires examination of the calyx on a flowering plant, but the average person likely can't tell the difference between the two species. But luckily we're friends with the exceedingly above-average Chris Smith, author of The Whole Okra, who probably knows more about okra than any person alive. Chris has examined well over a hundred heirloom okra varieties from across the US, and he's only ever found three that are West African okra (A. caillei) — and the Moody Family okra is one of them.
In growing this okra in 2020 at the Deitrichs' farm in South Jersey, Nate found it to be a beautiful, delicious, and productive okra. Almost every plant was tinged with red, bearing pods shaded red and green. One plant had incredibly large and thick green pods — this single example of diversity is not surprising for an old heirloom — though most plants were quite uniform. The plants were branching to only a minor extent — with just one or two pod-producing branches per plant — but mostly they grew single stems loaded with pods which produced for months. The pods are slightly more spiny than modern cultivars like 'Clemson Spineless,' so it makes sense to wear gloves while harvesting. But those spines melt upon exposure to heat, so cooking makes them quite delicious — and the spines are more of an issue at the base of the pod where it connects to the plant anyway, so Nate enjoyed eating raw pods of this variety right in the field, as he does with most every okra (raw okra fresh from the plant is a highly underrated food).
We hope you enjoy growing this okra — clearly not the average okra — as much as we have. And we thank Kris from the bottom of our hearts for making seed stewardship his life's work and for passing on these wonderful seeds.
This year's crop of seed was grown by the great Amirah Mitchell of Sistah Seeds in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.
GROWING TIPS: Start indoors around last frost date and transplant when soil warms up, around the same time you would put tomatoes into the ground. Harvest pods before they reach full-size to prevent them from getting woody or fibrous.