impersonating mary jane

Have you heard of The War on Okra?

Don’t worry.  I hadn’t heard of it, either, until very, very recently.  I photographed a few of the lovely tropical leaves of my Fife Creek Cowhorn heirloom okra, and looking through the shots later I thought, wait a second, that looks vaguely familiar….

Apparently, some other folks thought so, too.  This article might as well have been subtitled:  when what your neighbors think actually matters.  Because victory gardeners (and farmers!) have had the police called on them for growing okra.  Especially the narrow-leaved varieties can get you into trouble.  And I don’t mean just a friendly knock on the door, hey-what’s-that-you’ve-got-growing-there.  I mean search warrants/handcuffs/back seat of a patrol car/making bail trouble.

They’ve even confiscated whole plants to send to the crime lab.  So much for the year’s harvest.

So what’s behind the War on Okra?  (I mean besides Empire’s War-On-Everything paranoid, black-and-white, for-us-or-against-us worldview.) 

Simply this: Very few people grew up gardening.  Many, if not most, of us wouldn’t recognize the parent plants of the food we eat every single day.

I”m not likely to have any trouble recognizing an okra seedling the moment it unfolds its seed leaves.  And if that stumped me, I’d certainly know the plant the moment its first true leaves appeared a few days later.  This skill was learned, though, gradually — and with infinite patience on the part of my grandfather.

Some of my fondest childhood (and adult) memories are of walking the fields in his wake.  He’d often point to a tiny plant with no recognizable flower or fruit on it yet and say, “What’s that?”  If I got it wrong, which I almost always did at first, he’d just tell me what it was.  No judgment.  He could see I wanted to learn.  (He once told Mom he was sad he had only one “farming grandchild” to whom he could pass on his knowledge.  But I’m happy to say that later on, my sister caught the farming bug and has proved herself a quick learner with a bright green thumb, and now he’s sharing his secrets with her, as well.)

However, because of drastic changes in the fabric of our society here in America last century, I’m pretty confident in stating that to most of my friends, a plant looks like… um, duh, a plant — unless it bears a striking resemblance to a counterculture icon, the marijuana leaf, which shows up often enough to be remembered, now appearing on postcards, tee-shirts, posters, in bars and concerts and clubs.

Sad, but true.  Because of its status as an illegal drug, many of us are more likely to recognize the five-lobed stylized leaf of mary jane than the foliage of a simple bean, or a tomato, or a squash.

So what’s the moral here?  Be careful when you plant your okra.  It depends on what kind of neighborhood you live in, but it won’t hurt to go ahead and be proactive and talk to your neighbors about your victory garden experiment.

Take them some produce early in the season before the okra has bloomed and the seedlings still look just a bit suspicious.  When they come by to thank you for the fresh vegetables, take them on a brief tour of your kitchen garden and point to the okra and tell them it’s heirloom cowhorn okra that’s been grown in this country for over a hundred years.  Mention how beautiful it will be once it puts out its hibiscus-twin blossoms.

Tell them how easy it is to grow without pesticide/in the middle of a drought/in poor, depleted soil.  Tell them okra is probably hands-down one of the easiest food crops you can grow (at least in my climate – your mileage may vary), and that it’s an essential element of any garden grown for food in hard times because it’s so undemanding and yet produces more protein, by weight, than any other kitchen garden vegetable.

Be sure to take them some tiny, tender pods so they can try my favorite discovery of this summer:  raw okra.  Yum!

This way you’re less likely to be an innocent victim of The War on Okra.  And you never know.  You might have planted a seed in your neighbor so that next year she plants her own victory garden.  Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

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