Okra Pollination Problems (Part 2)

Last year I noted in my Okra Pollination Problems post that our okra had serious pollination problems—that the flowers were simply drying and falling off. What a difference a year makes! This year we moved the okra completely away from the tomatoes. Suddenly, there are all kinds of ants on the plants and the flowers are opening up as they should. In fact, we’ve already picked quite a bit of okra, which is one of the few bright spots in our drought impacted garden this year.

After talking with quite a few people about the issue, I’m becoming convinced that the okra flowers must have some sort of wax on them, much as other flowers such as peonies do. The ants are necessary to eat the wax off and help open the flowers. In addition, the ants must act as the pollinators. I haven’t seen much in the way of bee or other flying insect activity around these flowers to date and I’ve spent quite a bit of time watching. If someone else has an opinion about pollinators for okra, please contact me at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

The okra plants also seem to be responding well to heat. We’ve had to water them, but the plants are growing normally despite the heat (as contrasted to our tomatoes that don’t appear to want to grow much at all). I’d be interested in hearing other experiences with okra when it comes to summer heat. Given that this has been a hotter than normal summer (breaking all sorts of records), it’s a good test of what will happen when climate change starts to take a fuller effect. Okra seems to be on our list of items to maintain despite the heat.

The one thing we have noticed is that we’re having to be a little more diligent than normal in monitoring the okra. The individual spears are growing faster than normal and it’s possible to see a smallish okra one day that turns into something a bit too large the next. When okra get too large, they also get woody. You don’t want to pick them too small, but too large definitely presents problems. We normally pick the okra when it reaches 2 inches in length. That size seems to provide a good tradeoff between getting enough value for the time invested and not having a woody result.

How is your okra growing this year? For that matter, how is your garden doing as a whole? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Okra Pollination Problems

Every gardener faces the eventual problem that can’t be easily solved by talking with friends or looking online. This year presented one of those problems for us. We have big okra plants that aren’t producing any pods. Yes, there are a lot of flowers, but they aren’t producing anything. Instead, the flowers are opening, shriveling back up, and then dying as shown here.


You can see two flowers in this picture—both of which have dried up without producing fruit. All five of our okra plants are precisely in the same condition. They’re all nice big plants, but nothing to show for an entire summer’s worth of growth except some exceptionally beautiful leaves and dried flowers.

According to any number of sites, okra is self-pollinating in many cases. However, many of these sites also indicate that there hasn’t been any study done of the pollinators for okra and their effect on the plant. When I first noticed this problem, I spent time on a sunny day observing the plants carefully. A number of pollinators visited the plants, so it seemed at first that the issue isn’t one of pollinators.

However, I also noticed something else. On every other year, the okras in our garden are infested with ants. This year, there is not an ant to be found anywhere near our okra. A number of sites seem to indicate that the ants have no purpose for okra, but everyone complains about them. Now I’m starting to wonder whether the ants are pollinators or somehow help the plant in other ways. The okra certainly seems to put out a nectar that attracts ants like crazy.

The only other change in that particular part of the garden this year is that the patch has tomatoes in it. The okra is growing in row 4 of that patch and the tomatoes are growing in rows 1, 2, and part of 3. Last year, the okra was in row 1 of the same patch. Checking for relations between okra, tomatoes, and ants online proved fruitless. In short, there is no quick or easy answer for this particular problem except to say that it exists.

Our summer has been hot enough for the okra to grow quite large, so I’m sure it’s not a problem with heat. The okra has also been mulched and watered, so moisture isn’t a problem. Because the okra has been moved to a new row and that patch also received a nice layer of new mulch this past spring, it can’t be nutrients. I’ve checked the flowers and each one is producing the same amount of nectar as normal. I keep coming back to the lack of ants or some deleterious effect of putting tomatoes and okra in close proximity. If anyone else has a thought on this issue, please contact me at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.