Saturday, August 22, 2009

Heirloom Gardening: Mr Bird's Big Fat Okra - UPDATED: Make that: Charles Wright's Pot Belly Okra!

Heirlooms are not necessarily all "things". Plants can be heirlooms too, preserved and passed down for future generations to be able to grow, whether by division or through seed.

My mother has always collected flowers and flower seeds - most of the plants in her lovely yard were "starts" from friends and neighbors, or seed she collected from abandoned places.

Part of my gardening this year was done on borrowed ground. My friend, Maxine Carter, who let me use her plot also shared her Okra seed with me. She said that the man they bought the property from back in the mid 1970's, a Mr Bird, gave them this seed at that time and that she has grown it and saved the seed ever since.

It is like no okra I have ever seen. The optimim size for picking is about 4 inches long... and 1 1/4" to 1 1/2" diameter! It is huge! And tender as can be even at that stage.

While it is tender, it will "snap" off the stalk. If it bends when you try to pluck it, it has gotten woody. I just leave those pods attached to make new seed.

After picking, it keeps best at room temp where there is good air flow - turned over daily in a basket or paper sack, or laid out in a single layer. It will keep several days like that.

The ones left on the stalk for seed can stay on the stalk until the completely dry and start to pop open. That it when I cut them off (takes a knife), and lay them out in a single layer to dry completely. There is still a lot of water in them at this stage so it can take a month or so for them to dry.  You can then store the seed right in the dried pods. The alternative would be to shell the seeds out of them and then dry the seeds in your dehydrator at a low temp (120 or lower) before storing in paper bags.  The seed will be viable for many years if stored in a dark, dry location.

My friend said that she has never seen anything like it either, and she has always called it "Big Fat Okra".

Paul says it tastes better than any okra he has had before too.  It also freezes and cans beautifully. I just slice it up and vacuum pack it to freeze, or can it in my pressure canner with tomatoes, onions and, if you like, corn - okra MUST be pressure canned. A water bath is NOT safe for canning okra. Please see the directions at the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

We saved seed again for her to have plenty, and I brought some home to add to my heritage as well. So kids, when you find okra seed in with my stuff in about 50 years, you'll know where it came from! LOL!

UPDATE 09/04/14  I finally discovered where this came from. It was not Mr Bird, but Charles Wright who developed this interesting variety of okra at Blanket, Brown County, Texas. Mr Wright was a high school Science  teacher in Blanket. Among other things, he and his wife grew a large garden each year for the benefit of the community - a local lady said everyone was invited to go pick what they could use, and expected to leave enough for others. It was he who developed this okra. Most local people had forgotten his connection with it, and his grandchildren didn't have any information about it, or even any of the seed.   I've printed some seed packets to share around town and help preserve this little portion of Mr Charles Wright's legacy.

My neighbor Mike Caldwell told me that Charles Wright developed this, and that they had also called it "Pot Belly Okra".  Mike reminisced about the massive height of the stalks and the root system. The plants branch out like trees, so that one plant will produce, at the height of the season when it has matured, several pods a day.

The stalks will grow to 8 or 9 feet tall. I just pull them over to pick then let go and they pop back up.  You might could prune them, because of their natural branching habit, but I have not tried that yet.
They will continue producing here in North Central Texas until the plants are killed by frost.

UPDATE 09/2015 I've since been sharing the seed for this okra around the country.  I am eager to hear how it grows in other parts of the country. At this point, I feel comfortable that at least the seed is no longer in quite the danger of being lost as it was when I became the unlikely recipient of some of the last remaining seed. It makes me happy that I got interested enough to keep asking people until I ran into someone who knew its history!


  1. Do you want some heirloom hollyhock seeds? They're for the old single-blossom hollyhocks that you can make "dolls" from.

  2. Hey Pogonip, somehow I never saw your comment! My bad :-(

    If you still have some, yes I would love hollyhock seeds. The old fashioned ones are so pretty - they grew wild around the railroad tracks a few blocks from our house when I was growing up.

  3. An 83 year old man gave me some okra seeds that he said has been passed down in his family for 200 years, talk about heirloom!
    The okra that it produced looks just like the pictures above but for the life of me I cannot find out the proper name of this okra. I'm just hoping someone sees this and knows what kind it is or something, anything.
    By the way it is very tender at 4" long and everybody that has tasted it said they like it better and it was softer than clemson spinless 80.
    I'll watch for a reply, Thank You

  4. Hi, there, I was searching for more info on Mr Wright and found you. LOL. i love the post you did to preserve his history. i did find a botanist (October 29, 1811 - August 11, 1885) Wonder if this could be him or his descendant. Wickpedea said he walked most of the 673 miles, (which took over 104 days effort).[4] He collected seeds in Texas. in 1849. It would be amazing if he is the one. Best wishes. E

  5. Hi E! I should have put some dates in above! The Charles Wright in this case was a teacher in the 1960s and maybe the early 1970s. The botanist you found sounds interesting tho!

    To "Anonymous" above, I am so sorry for not replying to you back when you originally posted. Not sure how that happened but somehow I must have missed your post. This variety does have spines on it, even when it is tender, so it does not sound like the same kind. There is one I've seen in the catalogs called Star of David that looks similar to this one... wonder if that could be the one you have? Tina

  6. Just got some of this seed from Erne Herman in Missouri. Looking forward to trialing it in NJ. Will let you know how it does. Do you think it should be called "Charles Wright's Pot Belly Okra" instead, if that's the name he called it?

  7. Hi Nathan, so cool, thank's to E for sharing it with you. I am very interested to see how it turns out for you.

    Yes, I love the name "Charles Wright's Pot Belly Okra". It is catchy and clever, and will draw more interest from people. I will start calling it that when I write or talk about it. I'll have to print some new seed packets.

    I never knew these people but I cannot tell you how happy it makes me to know that Mr Wright's work will be remembered. Thank you for carrying it on! :-)


  8. Charles Wright's Pot Belly Okra has now reached a garden in Germany! I sent seed to Lee Ralph, who shared it with this gentleman:



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