Even if you find the mucilaginous material (slime to its enemies) exuded by the ridged pods of okra repulsive, you cannot help but be seduced by the mazy thicket of its nomenclature and its botanical relatives. The traditional and only partially obsolete Linnaean name is Abelmoschus esculentus, literally the edible “father of musk.” This Saddamian formulation probably came about because the hibiscus-like flowers of the okra plant smelled to some early arabophone botanizer like the true musk he had met at table. The resemblance to hibiscus blooms is not superficial but fundamental. Indeed, the revised standard name for okra is now Hibiscus esculentus, which puts it in the same genus as all those gloriously blooming plants arranged in such floral splendor in the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Fla.—until feral iguanas ate them.
More to the point, both okra and hibiscus belong to the huge mallow family, Malvaceae, which includes such other familiar plants as the durian, the magnolia, and the molokheya, or Jew’s mallow of North Africa. Hibiscus petals (technically not from the flowers but the calyx) are the sole ingredient of a tea popular in the Caribbean and Mexico as rosa de Jamaica. That particular hibiscus goes by the vernacular name “roselle.” For the complete (and completely fascinating) lowdown on it and its history, log on to http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/Indices/index_ab.html.
© 2007 Raymond Sokolov. All rights reserved.