Okra: Friend, Foe, or Fried?

okra7Image from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okra Ah, okra.

Okra is one of those divisive foods like mayonnaise or Brussel sprouts. Some people love it, while others are repulsed by the mere mentioning of its name. It’s like a culinary four-letter word. As a child, I was predisposed to hate okra. Everyone always described it as “slimy.” I’m not one for being a picky eater, but “slimy” isn’t typically a selling point for me when it comes to food. I refused to try okra for years because of this commonly used description.

As an educator at HMNS, I frequently encounter children who are afraid of certain halls or objects, like the ferocious prehistoric beasts in our Hall of Paleontology or the mysterious mummies in the Hall of Ancient Egypt. When I start to ask questions about why they’re afraid, I usually discover that it’s because they’re afraid of what they don’t know. So, we learn! We start talking about why mummification was an important practice in ancient Egypt, or we learn more about the amazing anatomy of a T. rex. I mean who could be afraid of a Tyrannosaurus rex after learning that one of the scientific theories behind their tiny arms is that they used them to show affection and tickle each other? It’s a pretty great mental image. After all, knowledge is power. I’m going to argue that the same concept can be applied to okra, so let’s delve into some food science.

Okra is a member of the flowering mallow family along with cotton and hibiscus. The culinary slime-stick we fry up or throw into jambalayas comes from the edible seed pod of the plant. Now, what is the deal with that slime? I’m glad you asked!

Okra seed pods contain a substance called mucilage. Sounds tasty, right? Mucilage is made up of polar glycoproteins and exopolysaccharides, or more simply put, it consists of protein chains and sugar residue. Plants use mucilage to store food and water, thicken their membranes, and help with seed germination.

Mucilage is also found in aloe vera and cactus plants. You may have rubbed some mucilage on yourself this summer in an attempt to soothe a painful sunburn. Some carnivorous plants, like sundews, have mucilage glands along their leaves to use as a flypaper trap to capture their prey.


Image: The fibrous mucilage found inside the leaves of an aloe plant.


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Image: You can see the mucilage at the end of the tentacles as this sundew catches an insect.

So, in short, this is the stuff you rub on yourself to heal a sunburn, and the substance some plants use to catch insects. Great, let’s eat it!

If you’ve ever told an okraphile that you hate okra, they most likely responded with “You didn’t cook it the right way!” And that may be true. You see, mucilage is hard when dry; however, as you heat mucilage and add moisture, the viscosity of the substance increases which releases the dreaded slime. That’s why many people advocate for quick-frying okra. (For that reason and because anything fried is delicious.) Frying exposes the okra to heat for a minimal amount of time, so the mucilage doesn’t become too viscus. This results in crunchy little okra morsels. Others embrace the goo and use it in gumbos and jambalayas. The mucilage acts as an excellent thickening agent in soups and stews. Because food science.

Now that we know a little more about our friend, mucilage, let’s serve up some okra. I’m a converted fan of fried okra. It’s simple, delicious and tends to eliminate the slime factor. I’ve included my favorite recipe below!

After you’ve fried up some okra, and you’ve worked up your appetite for okra and science, stop by Okra Charity Saloon during the month of September to support your museum! We’ll be there every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday with cocktail chemistry, fossils, crafts, and science. For more information on Okra Charity Saloon and how you can support HMNS, check out Nicole’s blog from September 1st (link to Nicole’s blog here).

Fried Okra
2 pounds of fresh okra
1 cup flour
1 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup buttermilk
6 cups oil for frying (Canola oil or peanut oil work best. These both have higher smoke points and mild flavors, which are perfect for frying foods. More science!)

  1. Heat oil in deep pan.
  2. Cut okra into 1/2 inch pieces.
  3. Place okra pieces in buttermilk. Let sit while you combine dry ingredients.
  4. Combine flour, cornmeal, garlic powder, paprika, cayenne pepper, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Stir until ingredients are combined.
  5. Remove okra from buttermilk and toss in coating until each piece is completely covered. 
  6. Fry okra in oil for approximately 5 minutes or until pieces are a golden brown. Stir to make sure each piece is evenly fried. (Remember: Don’t leave it for too long, or you’ll increase the viscosity of the mucilage!)
  7. Remove okra from oil and place on paper towels to remove excess oil.
  8. Enjoy, and stop by Okra Charity Saloon to support HMNS!

Have Science Fun in the Summer Sun with a Solar Print Kit!

by Marina Torres

Texas heat is here, and school’s out for summer. With all that bright sun outside, it’s a great time to play under the open sky. In the spirit of the season, we took science outside with a do-it-yourself kit from our own Museum Store. This super fun and educational solar print kit really leaves an impression! With this kit, you can challenge your children’s imagination and keep them active.


Here’s what it comes with:12 five-by-seven pieces of solar paper, two print frame holders, two pre-printed stencil sheets and three blank note cards with envelopes so kids can share their finished projects with friends and families.


And here’s how it works: First, lay everything out.

Cut out the pre-printed stencil images and gather the items you’d like to use in your image. In a dim room, place the solar sheet (located inside the black envelope) under the frame, with the blue side facing up. Place the items on top of the sheet and close the frame.


Carefully place the system under the bright summer sun for about three minutes or until the sheet turns white.


Gather your items and prints out of the sun, then rinse under running water and let them dry.


Voila! You’ve merged art and science into one, and created these super cool solar images!


Visit the Museum Store or shop online for this solar print kit and other DIY kits or browse around for other summer toys. We’ve also opened an exciting new Cabinet of Curiosities section inspired by our newest exhibition. There’s never been a better time to start your own collection!

Editor’s Note: Marina is the Visual Manager for the Houston Museum of Natural Science Museum Store.

Come to HMNS After Dark for a Sweet Surprise!

You may use artificial sweeteners in your tea or coffee, maybe even sprinkle some on your food, but there’s nothing quite like the miracle fruit to make sour foods more palatable. Just gnaw on one of these berries for a minute, let the juice coat your tongue, and for up to an hour, everything from plain yogurt to lemons to Sour Patch Kids taste just as sugary as Lucky Charms!


Meet the berries of the miracle fruit plant (Synsepalum dulcificum). After eating just one, everything else tastes a little bit sweeter for up to an hour.

Here’s how it works: the berries of the Synsepalum dulcificum plant, which we cultivate in the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, contain a protein named miraculin after the effect they have on your taste buds. The protein confuses the sensitivity of the sweet and sour-tasting areas of your tongue, tricking your mouth into thinking certain foods are filled with sugar. That’s right… If you munch a miracle berry, you can eat a whole pile of lemons without making a face! But be careful. Your tongue might be fooled, but your stomach will know the difference.

Because we’ve just harvested a crop of these miracle berries from our own miracle fruit plant, we’re offering an opportunity for you to try this magical plant out for yourself. Come to HMNS After Dark next Wednesday, March 30, from 5 to 9 p.m. and visit the booth outside the CBC to try a berry and experiment with its effects. We’ll give away both berries and snacks to sample along with them completely free to guests enjoying our new after-hours schedule!


This is the seed pod of a cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), from which we make cocoa butter and chocolate. Inside this pod are fats, oils, and cocoa beans.

While you’re snacking, pop into the CBC to visit our incredible butterfly collection and see how other kinds of tropical fruit grow. You may now know it, but we grow papaya, pineapple, bananas, cocoa and coffee right here in the museum, along with several other kinds of exotic edibles! It’s another way you can learn about the interaction between pollinating insects and the plants that need their help to produce fruit. Check out these photos of fruit-producing specimens, taken right in our own rainforest!


Coffee beans (Coffea arabica), not to be confused with cocoa, grow individually. Once the fruit is removed, the bean is roasted and then ground to make America’s favorite hot beverage.


Papaya trees (Carica papaya) bear their fruit in a row along the main stem. Except for the yellow one at the bottom, these are still far from ripe.


It looks like the large pineapple in back is sneaking up on the smaller one in front. Pineapple plants (Ananas comosas) are a terrestrial bromeliad.


These red bananas (Musa acuminata) aren’t ripe yet, but they won’t grow much bigger than this. They’ll just turn red.

That’s it for the familiar ones. Have you heard of these three below?


Yes, this is an edible fruit! It’s called Monstera deliciosa, which grows in Central and South America.


The sapodilla plant (Manilikara zapota), bears fruit that looks similar to a kiwi, but is orange inside.


The noni fruit (Morinda citrifolia), also known as the cheese fruit or vomit fruit, is edible, but it produces a foul odor that makes eating it quite unpleasant.


Some other fruiting plants in our collection aren’t producing at the moment, but are still worth a look. Keep your eyes peeled for the vanilla orchid, avocado, starfruit, rose apple, guanábana, and guava. Whatever you find, in the CBC at HMNS After Dark, you can definitely expect a sweet surprise.


Our butterflies are some of the most spectacular on earth, and without them, many of these fruits would never reach maturity. So next time you’re at the CBC, thank a butterfly!

Did Dinosaurs Invent Flowers? (with a big assist from flies and beetles)

There was a Veggie-saur revolution at the start of the Cretaceous Period — did it cause flowers to appear?

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Brief History of Land Plants and Critters Who Ate Them

In today’s world, on dry land, flowering plants — aka angiosperms — are the Number 1   Ruling Class of vegetation. In the tropical rain forests, where plant species are the most diverse, just about all the trees are flowering plants. And so are most of the shrubs and vines and low-growing herbs, plus all the grasses too. The non-flowering plants with seeds, the gymnosperms, do include some famous species. The needle-leaved conifer trees, like pines and cedars and noble redwoods of California, win fame as
the tallest gymnosperms. And best-looking too. In addition, gymnosperms can boast of cycads, with their super-stiff palm-style leaves, and the ginkos, whose graceful leaves ornament many a college street. (But don’t step on the fruit — its stink is so bad that many a town has banished the female trees, leaving only the odor-free males to line the sidewalks). 

But compared to the angiosperms, the gymnos are secondary players who do very well only in odd habitats, like dry, sandy soil or frigidly cold northern forests. 

Don’t think it’s always been that way. If you time-traveled back to the Jurassic, you’d see no angiosperms at all. Nada. Nyet. Neither trees nor shrubs nor grass. Stegosaurus and Brontosaurus looked out on a dull green landscape without any brightly colored flowers. Jurassic woodlands had magnificent groves of conifers mingled with some stately tall cycads and a surprising array of ginkos. But no plants with flowers. We get the very first
fossil hints of flowering plants early in the Cretaceous: some pollen grains, some leaves, even some flower parts, most very small. Then, as we go later and later in the Cretaceous sediments, we see the angiosperms proliferating in variety and expanding in numbers. By the late Late Cretaceous, the great herbivorous dinos like Ankylosaurus and Triceratops cavorted among a kaleidoscope of brilliant spring flowers.

What released the evolutionary potential of the angios?

Bugs must take a lot of the credit. Most gymnosperms reproduce pinestyle — they rely on the wind to spread pollen from tree to tree. Early angiosperms could spread their pollen by hitchhiking on bug backs and bug snouts. Flowers are devices to seduce insects with the promise of yummy free meals. The aroma of flowers brings in flying critters who enjoy the repast and then fly away, carrying a load of pollen to fertilize the next 2 plant. So, bug pollinators are especially important to plants which have their populations in patches, spread far and wide. 

Speaking of patchiness, when angiosperms first appeared they were NOT tall, stately trees. Nope. The Ur-Angiosperms were aggressive opportunists, scraggly little botanical carpet-baggers. If there were a movie of the first angiosperm he’d be played by Danny DiVito. These devious plants waited until disaster struck and they moved into disturbed
neighborhoods, places where the native gymnosperm vegetation had been washed away by storms or blasted by wind, or buried in layers of mud. The invading angios had just the right adaptive equipment to exploit blighted habitats. Their seeds spread easily and sprouted fast. The young sprouts grew like weeds — well, in fact, they were weeds, weedy bushes and other plants of low stature. So the angios could fill holes blasted into the
botanical architecture completely and quickly.

For the Early Cretaceous angios, it was an unsettled life. In each disturbed patch, eventually, the slower-growing gymnosperm plants might re-invade and work their way back into the land taken over by the flowering plants. But that was ok. New disaster areas always opened up somewhere else and the angios would do their thing again. Of course, every time, the bug connection was a big help in letting the angios reproduce and share genes all over the new patches of habitat. But wait……….there’s another animal-plant connection that was working to help the early flowering plants. Not tweensy bug-oids but gargantuan plant-eaters.

If you are reading these lines and are a game ranger from one of the great African parks you’d be yelling “You forgot over-grazing! Over-browsing! Elephants, rhinos, Cape Buffalo!


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How to overgraze an Early Cretaceous Woodland and Open Patches for Angiosperms.

You see, for clearing out vegetation, big herbivores can be far worse than floods and storms. A herd of multiton pachyderms can function as grazers, eating all the grass and other low-growing greenery, and as browsers, picking out the fruit and branches and leaves of shrubs and saplings. And then, when they’re done, really big, elephant-sized plant-eaters knock down the trees and eat the plant parts on tree tops. Before they were badly poached, white rhinos and black rhinos did a job on many local African habitats, assisted by huge herds of Cape Buffalo. When elephant populations exploded in Amboseli Park, the lush forest was transformed into a dry forest which was transformed into a blighted woodland with denuded soil.

In the American West, unscrupulous absentee owners sometimes cram far too many cows into an area where luxuriant bushes line the creeks and edges of ponds. Soon all the underbrush is gone and so is the grass.

A plague of beefy herbivores, herefords or buffalo, opens the way for unwanted weeds — in my native Texas, mesquite, cedar, and prickly pear. With over-grazing and over-browsing in mind, we should check out the veggie-saurs of the Jurassic and Cretaceous. And when we do, we see an extraordinary re-structuring of giant vegetarians.

The Jurassic might be called the “Giraffa-zoic” because, on average, the big plant-eaters were tall to very tall to unbelievably tall. Long-necked brontosaurians like Brachiosaurus could reach up twenty five feet or more into the tree tops. Their distant cousins, the Diplodocus clan, not only had long necks but also had immensely strong and heavy rumps and thighs so they could rear up and choose among the most tasty branches and leaves in the tree tops. These long-necks reached the body weight of a half dozen
bull elephants — 50 tons or more.

In the same Jurassic habitats, stegosaurs fed in and around the long-necked herds. Though they had necks of only modest length, the stegos could rear up, so their browsing could sample plants at fifteen feet above the ground. 

All these high-browsers could search low-growing plants as well. That way the feeding pressure on the plant community was spread over an extraordinarily wide vertical range, from zero to forty feet. Specialized ground feeders were rare and not very big in Jurassic times. Some armorplated dinos, the ankylosaurians, carried their heads low all the time but rarely exceeded a ton in weight. Camptosaurs, primitive relatives of duck-bill dinos, were roughly pony-size in body build. The campto necks were permanently down-flexed for concentrated feeding close to the ground surface.

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Early Cretaceous Iguanodont Sampling the New Angiosperm Salad Bar.

This array of high-feeding vegetarian tactics had evolved early in the Period and lasted right through to the very end of the Jurassic Period, about 140 million years ago. Then it happened — Vegetarian Revolution. As the Cretaceous began, stegosaurs died out most places. In their place came new waves of armored ankylosaurians, all feeding low, close to the ground. These new armored veggie-saurs rapidly achieved body sizes in the elephant range. Long-necked brontosaurians persisted but lost some diversity. The camptosaur-kin evolved into the famous “Thumb Spike Clan”, the iguanodonts. These chaps had first fingers modified into sharp, stout stabbing weapons (probably for fighting among themselves as much as repelling would-be predators). The iguanodonts had necks curved down so the head was quite low.

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The Shift from Many High Feeders in the Jurassic to Many Low Feeders in the Cretaceous.

To summarize: In the Jurassic, plants were subjected to herbivore attacks spread from zero feet above the ground to twenty, thirty or forty feet. Once the Cretaceous began, the feeding became concentrated in lower and lower levels.

For low vegetation, it got worse as the Cretaceous world matured. More and more massive herbivores entered the low-feeding zones. Horned dinosaurs and duckbills had low head posture and must have done most of their feeding within a yard or two above the soil.

See the connection to angiosperm origins? The intensified pressure inflicted by vegetarianism upon gymosperms produced many more spots devastated by over-grazing and over-browsing. Therefore, the veggiesaurrevolution probably opened the opportunities for early flowering plants to expand and take over many more acres of landscape. With the collaboration of pollinating bugs.

If you are a fan of flowers — and who isn’t? –you must doff your hat to those Cretaceous maxi-herbivores, the low-level dinosaurian behemoths. These veggie-saurs disturbed wide swathes of woodland and forest, splendid opportunities for the first waves of flowering-plant evolution.