Hibiscus esculentus, also known as Abelmoschus esculentus, is an annual vegetable that is more commonly known as okra. In some areas, it is called gambo or lady fingers. Originally from Africa, this member of the mallow family is now grown in warmer climates all over the world and is very popular in the southeastern United States. It produces showy pale yellow flowers, but is grown for its edible seed pods.
The hibiscus bush has a thick woody stem that often grows to over 6 feet (1.8 m) tall. Individual leaves can measure 8 inches (20 cm) in length and the single flowers are usually about 3 inches (8 cm) in diameter. The long green fruit, which resembles a small squash or zucchini, grows up to 12 inches (30 cm) long and it is usually full of kidney-shaped seeds. Fruits should be picked when small, as larger ones can be bitter and tough.
Okra fruits are mucilaginous, meaning that they produce a slimy substance when cooked. This mucilage is high in soluble fiber, but many people do not care for its texture. Cooking them whole helps to reduce the sliminess, as does quick stir frying. Adding acidic foods to a pan of hibiscus esculentus, such as tomatoes, lemon juice, or vinegar, also helps to minimize the gooey nature.
The other parts of the plant provide a variety of uses in addition to the fruit. The leaves are edible and can be added to soups and stews to thicken the broth. They can also be eaten raw in salads or may be boiled like beet greens. In addition, the seeds are flavorful and can be ground to be used as a coffee substitute.
Seeds of hibiscus esculentus germinate easily and they should be planted directly in the ground where they are to remain. Plants do not transplant well and often suffer from shock when they are dug up. If plants must be moved, it should be done when they are small, and care should be taken not to disturb the root systems with as much soil as possible kept around the roots.
These types of hibiscus plants are very prolific. Like squash and zucchini, they will usually produce more fruits than one family can use. They are, however, easy to preserve by canning or freezing. If frozen, they should be used immediately after thawing to prevent them from becoming mushy.
In addition to being high in fiber, hibiscus esculentus seed pods are high in folic acid and vitamin B6. They are also a good source of calcium and vitamin A. To retain most of these nutrients, the seed pods should be cooked as little as possible or eaten raw.