‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ Okra by Patty G. Leander

 

Southern-Living-Seed-Guide

The Southern Living Seed Guide

A little over a month ago I was thumbing through the February issue of Southern Living while waiting for a dental appointment. I skipped past the kitchen redo, the make-your-own-berry-wreath and the South’s new hotels to land on a piece titled The Southern Living Seed Guide. As a seed-admiring, seed-saving vegetable gardener I am drawn to stories and articles about seeds, varieties and the stories behind them.

My favorite seed story, of course, is the one I am most familiar with and one I have a personal connection to – ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ bushy okra, developed by my all-time favorite garden mentors, teachers and encouragers, the late George and Mary Stewart. So when I saw ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’  listed as a Southern Living pick it made me smile real big, and then my smile turned to disbelief and dismay when they referred to it as a Louisiana heirloom!

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‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ okra harvest.

Uh-uh, no way. We love you, Louisiana, but the Lone Star State’s reputation is at stake here: ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ is not a Louisiana heirloom though you certainly get some credit since George was born in Westlake, Louisiana and ‘Zeebest’ was selected from a planting of ‘Louisiana Green Velvet’ okra. But all the toil and sweat that George and Mary put into developing ‘Zeebest’ – planting, selecting, saving, replanting and ultimately sharing – occurred in the 1980s at the Stewart homeplace in Houston, right down on South Main where George and Mary spent most of their adult life, across the street from the train tracks and a few doors down from the auto repair shop. And to add a little more perspective, George and Mary had lived in Houston so long they could remember the installation of Houston’s first traffic light and gleefully shared tales of the days before air-conditioning.

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Houston’s premier garden educators, George and Mary Stewart, profiled by Kathy Huber in the Houston Chronicle, 1990

George and Mary Stewart were extraordinary gardeners, full of wit and wisdom and a special gift for entertaining while educating. They drew the audience into their horticultural adventures with stories and laughter, inspiring a can-do attitude that made you want to go home and grow-your-own. For posterity’s sake and to keep the record straight, here is a brief history of ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’:

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A proud George with one of his branching, productive ‘Zeebest’ okra plants. Photo by William D. Adams

In the 1980s George and Mary were given a few pods from a highly productive planting of ‘Louisiana Green Velvet’ okra from the garden of family friend Joe Ziegler. The seeds were planted in the Stewart garden and George recognized that some of the plants developed a strong branching pattern. They began carefully selecting for tender, productive and heavily branched plants which George enthusiastically referred to as ‘Stewart’s Zeebest Bushy Okra’; over time it was shortened to ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ or simply ‘Zeebest’ and soon they were promoting their home-grown Texas variety and giving away seeds. That was almost 30 years ago so it hasn’t yet reached heirloom status. An heirloom is generally defined as an open-pollinated variety that has been grown and maintained by an individual or a community for 50 years. Well, George and Mary are gone now but they left ‘Zeebest’ in our hands and we in turn need to keep it in production for future generations. Today, thanks mostly to the efforts of Bill Adams, Retired Harris County Extension Agent and good friend of George and Mary, seeds are available from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (Rare Seeds) and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (Southern Exposure).

Whether you are a native Texan or a transplant, if you live in Texas I hope you have learned to love okra. If you haven’t planted seed yet now is a good time. Okra not only survives but it thrives in our heat and looks pretty good while doing it, thanks to being a member of the mallow family which also includes hibiscus and hollyhock. Most varieties produce in 60-65 days and will continue to produce right up to the first frost. Overgrown okra can be fibrous and tough and should be picked when it is 3-5” long. It grows fast so check for pods every other day.

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Flag the best okra pods for saving and let them dry on the plant.

Saving seed of okra is very easy to do as the seeds are big and the pods are a perfect receptacle.  To ensure the purity of the seed it is recommended that you grow and save seed from only one variety at a time. Select one or two pods (or more if you want to have plenty to share) from your healthiest specimens, flag the chosen pods with brightly colored tape, and let those pods dry on the plant.

I met George and Mary in 1989, when Mary was 79 and George was 83. I was in my early thirties and they could run circles around me in the vegetable garden. They gardened intuitively and frugally, generously sharing what they knew about growing vegetables to scores of home gardeners along the Gulf Coast.  George and Mary were proud of the vegetables that they grew and their produce needed no enhancements. But George was a born storyteller and was known to sometimes embellish the truth. Though he tried to keep his exaggerations to a minimum, it seemed to be Mary’s lot in life to keep George grounded in truth. In fact, at the age of 83, after some 60 years of marriage, Mary wrote and dedicated the following poem to George:

Tell any tale you like, m’love,

Embroidered with lies and fiction;

I’ll not interrupt to correct, m’love,

                   Your facts or figures or diction.

Embellish your stories to any degree

                   With fables and falsification;

Just don’t turn to me and expect me to give

                   My unqualified verification.

 

With that in mind, below is a description of ‘Zeebest’, taken right out of Mary’s garden notes:

“The parent plant of these seed had 28 branches and 243 pods on it at one time.  We started with Louisiana Green Velvet and over a period of 9 years of selection for branching tendencies, this is the result.  To save seed, let a fine pod on a good specimen plant dry on the stalk,
then shell out and let dry completely in open tray at room temperature.  Store seeds in a tightly closed container in the refrigerator.”

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Mary’s collection of recipes and remembrances, published at the age of 80

Mary learned to use a computer when she was 80 years old and proceeded to write a cookbook which she titled, “Kitchen NostalgiaAn Incomplete Cookbook–A Collection of Heirloom Recipes, Past and Future”.  The preface of Mary’s cookbook begins “This is in memory of Mamma.” Here is a favorite recipe from the files of vegetable gardener and home-cook extraordinaire, Mary Stewart, in her own words:

Okra and Tomatoes

“This has been a summer mainstay as long as we have had a garden, which has been forever. Some add browned beef, but I never have. It is good served over rice or just as a side vegetable. Searing the cut okra in hot fat at the start takes away some of the slickness and makes it more palatable. The amounts are really variable, so feel free to deviate.”
4 cups sliced fresh okra

¼ cup oil (or bacon fat)
1 cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped bell peppers, red, green or mixed

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon cumin

2 8-ounce cans tomato sauce or 1 can tomato paste (or 2 cups peeled, chopped tomato)

1 cup water

Heat the oil in a heavy pot or skillet; add okra, stirring to sear the cut edges. Don’t let it burn. Add onions and sauté till limp, then add garlic and pepper and simmer about 5 minutes, stirring to prevent burning. Then add the tomato sauce or paste, thinning with water to have it a bit on the “soupy” side. Add the seasonings and simmer about 15 minutes, stirring now and then until the okra is tender but not falling apart. Yield: 8 servings

George and Mary Stewart in their Houston vegetable garden in the early 1990s. Photo by William D. Adams

George and Mary Stewart in their Houston vegetable garden in the early 1990s. Photo by William D. Adams

I hope that if you decide to grow ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ bushy okra, you will share it with compliments of George and Mary, and take the time to reflect on the heritage of gardeners from your own family history, passing these stories down to a future generation of vegetable growers.

20 thoughts on “‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ Okra by Patty G. Leander

  1. I had the privilege of meeting George and Mary when they talked to the Galveston County Master Gardener class in 1998. They were still full of enthusiasm! Still have their cookbook. -Cynthia Mueller

    • They must have been something! I absolutely love her poem. BTW, I accidentally posted too soon. Be sure to go back and see the pictures! Hope you are feeling better!

    • Thanks for the comment and thanks for reading. Patty will be pleased that you will help keep her mentor’s creation going.

  2. I have very fond memories of George and Mary, thanks to my mom’s frequent visits with my sister and me to their home on Main Street. We were always greeted with big hugs and a scoop of Blue Bell when we walked in the door. Fast forward 25 years – my husband and I just bought our first house and when we plant a garden, “Zeebest” will have its own special place!

    • What a great testament to both your mother and the Stewarts! Best of luck with the new house and the new garden!

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  4. Great article! So many lasting memories of George and Mary. My sister already mentioned the Blue Bell ice cream that Mary always had in her freezer…I’ll add on the cookies she always had in her cookie jar. George always told jokes that went over my head as a little kid but I’ve heard my dad retell some of those jokes and now that I’m older they’re pretty dang funny. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

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  6. Patty, The article about George and Mary is so endearing and I feel like I can hear you say the words that I read! We, too, loved visiting George and Mary with you and your family and have great memories of them, their home, the garden, and the well stoked pantry full of their home canned goods. They were a wonderful couple and I know that they have a special place in your life. It is good for you to set the world straight and to make sure that they get the credit for their creation.
    All of the vegetable stories, pictures and recipes are so good that it inspires me to join “the club” but the only thing that is holding me back is that I just don’t like very many vegetables! Darn it! Kelly

    • Those were good times and good memories, Kelly…and somehow our friendship endures, with or without vegetables!

  7. I have been growing Zeebest here in the Republic of Panama since last January. I also grow Heavyhitter okra side by side along with the zeebest. I grow okra year around. The Zeebest okra outperforms the Heavyhitter here in Panama, although they do not get as tall or as productive as the photo in this article. Something about my daylength being short I am told. The plants get about 50 to 60 inches tall and they are bushy. I usually harvest 40 to 50 pods from each plant. I am experimenting to try and get plants like in the picture but I guess I got a lot to learn. There is usually 6 to 8 branches on each plant. Just big bushy fella’s with quite a few pods. Both variety’s are worthy of having in the garden. Zeebest is a great variety. I have been seed saving and plan to keep planting Zeebest permanently.

    • Thanks for the comment! It is very interesting to me that you are in Panama. Just curious, what is your day length and where did you get your original seeds?

      • I do not know the day length. However, since I am very close to the equater so my daylength is much shorter than in the US. My longtitude and latitude is Latitude/Longitude (Absolute Locations)
        Panama: (capital city) 8º 58′ N, 79º 32′ W
        Check yours to see the difference. It is probably a lot different.
        I am retired and live in Panama in Las Santos province. We have a severe climate here. Hot year around. In the 90’s everyday, all year. Rain 6 months, zero rain 6 months. Hot always.
        Acquired my seed when I bought some Heavyhitter okra seeds from Ron Cooke in Oklahoma. He thru in some Zeebest sedes as a bonus pack. Funny thing was, the Zeebest plants outperformed the Heavyhitter okra which wasn’t supposed to happen.
        As you may know, most esculentus is day length neutral. My day length is a true short day length by definition. It really affects the way esculentus grows. That is a fact. I need to find out more about it but I am sure I live in short day conditions. Similar to what they have in some country’s in Africa. I am happy with the performance of my zeebest okra. However, I am not going to get as good of results as you do. I am still experimenting. I believe I am the first person to ever grow zeebest or heavy hitter okra in Panama as they do not consider okra a food source here. They do have a variety that grows here. A kind of feral variety that can grow without ferilizer and wáter. Takes forever for it to produce and it doesn’t produce much. I am also waiting for some African okra sedes to reach me. Abelmoschus Caillie its called. Its a different species of okra that is a true short day variety. I should be recieving the seed at the end of August. If you are interested you can email me at blueyes997@live.com and I can forward you pictures of my trial planting etc.

        • I would be interested. Please let me know how it goes. When I was working on my Master’s degree there was a young man that was trying to take several US varieties of black eyed peas to Africa. Even though black eyed peas originated in Africa, they are low growing plants with low production. He hopes to overcome things like day length issues and pH issues so that he can introduce a pea that will have increased yields to help alleviate some of their hunger issues.

          • Jay, I am extremely excited about trying the African okra sedes. They came from Echo in florida. I know nothing about this variety except that it is Abelmoschus Caillei. They say that this variety grows tall and erect and produces well. They were nice enough to send a pack of this seed to my friend in the US, who will return to Panama at the end of August. I will be ready to plant it quickly once I get the seed. The idea behind planting this variety is that I will plant it during the rainy season which ends in Dec. By the time that Dec comes, the plants should have real deep root systems. And, will not require much irrigation at all, even during long dry spells. We will have zero rain for at least 5 straight months after Dec passes and this okra should rarely, if ever even wilt. But, I gotta grow it to know it. Email me and I will send you photo’s of this okra as it grows. It should take 3 or 4 months or even more to start blooming. A true, short day okra. And, it should produce okra slower, over a long period, with less wáter in a brutal environment. I can’t wait to get a trial planting in the ground.

          • In response to the man who imported black eyed peas to Africa. He probably failed with the trials. As you know, black eyed peas probably came to the US along with the black folk that immigrated to our country a couple of hundred years ago. Black eyed peas have probably morphed over the years to adapt to our climate and conditions. They probably would need irrigation to survive in Africa. In my opinión, black eyed pea’s would have to regress or become wild again in order to adapt to long dry growing seasons and short day conditions. Unless he has the time to experiment and work with his chosen variety, he will probably give up far sooner than the time it would require to come up with a variety that would adapt and help those people. Very rarely do I get some US derived seed that performs well for me here in my conditions. I prefer to find seed locally so I know that the plants have a chance to produce. Locals will not trust new seed either. They do all the work by hand and its a lot of work. If the crop fails that will be the last time they ever trust you and your so called superior sedes.