A Garden Surprise: Vine Okra!

If you’ve never heard of vine okra, you need to hear this story.

Back in August of last year a friend and I were on our way to Holmes County, Ohio, to visit with some Amish customers. We decided to stop in Jamestown, Tennessee, to spend the night with my friend’s Grandmother. I had heard about this region from my friend and was anxious to see the lay of the land and meet the mountain people I had heard about. Jamestown, the county seat of Fentress County, is located on the Cumberland Plateau, and sits in the eastern-most section of Middle Tennessee. Mrs. Lu, as we called her, lived in the county, a few miles from town on a small winding road in an old farmhouse.

We arrived late in the afternoon, and I immediately noticed the garden growing next to the house. Being a garden nut, I wandered over to take a gander at it. The first thing I noticed was that this was not a fad or something these people were trying for the first time. This garden was there for one reason — to produce food!

There were no raised beds, fancy fences or China-made gazing balls. You could tell the object here was to have the maximum amount of output with the least amount of cost. Rows of pole beans were growing on tripod trellises. The trellises consisted of whatever wood could be found in the nearby hardwood bottoms.

The pole beans were an old, large flat variety that I had not seen in years. I remembered them from when I was a boy and people grew them for the fresh market. I noticed tomatoes and other vegetables growing in the back of the garden. I could not enjoy the rest of it, for admiring the pole beans. Being about eight feet tall, they had to have a ladder to harvest them. You could tell it was a main staple of their diet. They canned them outside under a large tree and depended on them for the winter.

Mrs. Lu, knowing we were coming, had prepared a large dinner for us. As we walked into the kitchen I was reminded of my grandmother’s kitchen. It was small, and there weren’t many cabinets. Only the essentials had a place here. We sat down at the small table and passed the bowls back and forth to fill our plates.

After I got a generous portion of pole beans, I noticed a plate of fried okra. I do love fried okra and probably got more than my share. When I tasted the okra I thought it was good, but different than I what I was used to. When Mrs. Lu came back in to refill our glasses with sweet tea, I commented on how great the food was and questioned her as to the variety of okra. She said that was vine okra. I had always grown Clemson Spineless and was familiar with a few other heirloom varieties, but I had never heard of vine okra. Being something of a self-pronounced expert on vegetable gardening, I figured she had gotten confused or misunderstood the correct variety. I did, however, know that it was good and different and I had to know what it was. I asked if, after dinner, she would show me the plants growing in the garden. She showed me a few plants growing on a tripod trellis similar to the pole beans. It was full of yellow flowers and, yes, it was a vine. I had grown some Loofah sponge before and knew this plant resembled it.

Where to Find Vine Okra?

After returning home I Googled “vine okra” and found it to actually be an edible gourd: Luffa acutangula. Common name: Vine Okra. Mrs. Lu was right after all. I found seeds at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, and I grew vine okra in my garden this year. I think it will have a place for years to come.

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