Ark of Taste
White Velvet Okra
Abelmoschus esculentus v. white velvet
The White Velvet Okra breed was registered and commercially introduced to the public in 1890 by the Peter Henderson & Company (P.H. & Company) of New York, U.S.A. In the earliest specifications of okra varieties in advertisements and agricultural articles of the early 1800s, okra types were distinguished by -- color white, red, purple, and the standard green okra. Breeders began improving these original strains into commercial seed catalogue varieties in the mid-19th century. Throughout the 19th century the white velvet variety shows up in various publications accompanied by enthusiastic reviews about its favorable features -- long pods, efficient growth, good taste, easy harvesting. It was hybridized from both dwarf and long varieties to maintain plant productivity as well as added size to the pods. As a result of P.H. & Company’s careful hybridization and breeding to remove thorns and rigidness, the vegetable is easily prepared and regarded as the prime variety of the three Velvet okras (Green Velvet, Red Velvet and White Velvet). White Velvet Okra has been a part of southern foodways for over 100 years, making it “distinctly a southern vegetable and highly appreciated by many southerners,” especially in the Deep South states of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. Originally White Velvet Okra was grown and harvested in concentrated areas within the South, specifically Birmingham, Alabama; Mobile, Alabama; Warrior, Alabama; Montgomery, Alabama; Valley Park, Mississippi; and Shreveport, Louisiana. In Alabama its popularity was legend with many citizens calling for its commercial cultivation, “there is no factory in Alabama to can the white okra of the State. It is a never failing crop and it is infinitely superior to the green okra, and there is an unlimited demand for it.” The same connoisseur also stated “here is an opportunity for what would almost be a monopoly”, going on to say “millions of cans could be sold every year if it were only on the market.” Unfortunately, while its strange color and smooth fuzz became popular throughout the South, White Velvet Okra disappeared from home menus as commercial farming invaded these communities in favor of other sustainable, less exotic varieties of green okra.
In other varieties, okras’ spines make prepping the vegetables troublesome but this variety’s smooth velvet fuzz makes it easy to cook, as well as edible raw. After harvesting, the pods need to be laid out to dry and then they can be used in recipes, eaten raw, and do well canned. Historically the variety has seen a number of applications in kitchens, whether it be in a simple garden salad, in a vinegar based pickling method with other vegetables of the like or alone, gumbos, stews or cooked with greens and/or peas. Known for its “tender, smooth pods” this variety’s most practiced application is in tomato based vegetable soups. Some prefer it to green velvet okra, because it does not harden like the green velvet okra and is much more attractive in soups and on the table. Also like most okra varieties, White Velvet Okra can be chopped into small pieces battered for frying.
As of 2015, White Velvet Okra is not commercially produced in the United States. This original seed variety is scarce and only available through a handful of seed companies; therefore, it has become a seemingly exotic variety outside of the South and is infrequently grown in communities historically known for its cultivation. The majority of okra grown in the United States today is grown in South Carolina and Georgia which are outside of the historical area from which White Velvet Okra gained its popularity and eventual following from where it has become virtually extinct. Isolated within small communities, it is less likely to capture a commercial cultivators eye when scouting prospective future crops for mass production. This variety deserves attention for its scarceness and continued popularity in these southern communities.