Pot-looking okra cotton has passers-by looking twice

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 11, 2001

Extension agent Robert Goodson, left, and research agronomist Steve Hague, inspect a row of okra leaf cotton near St. Joseph Tuesday. (The Vicksburg Post/C. TODD SHERMAN)

[07/11/01] ST. JOSEPH Okra leaf cotton has gained a measure of fame in Tensas Parish this summer, and it’s not because the plant helps produce finer-than-average fabric.

Tensas residents, Lake Bruin weekenders and others who drive through this farm-studded corner of the Louisiana Delta have taken note of the okra leaf, parish agent Robert Goodson said, because it bears a resemblance to another plant that pops up here sometimes.

“They think it’s marijuana,” Goodson said. “There’ve been about 15 people who’ve asked me how to smoke it so far.”

Goodson has told them all the truth about the mysterious crop it’s not pot, despite the five spindly leaves that adorn each plant and make some think it’s at least kin to cannabis.

The variety does have advantages. Its thin leaves provide a permeable canopy over the cotton bolls, making it easier for insecticides to seep into the plant. With thicker foliage, other cotton variants make farmers work harder to protect them from boll weevils and field pests, said Steve Hague, an agronomist at the Northeast Louisiana Experiment Station in St. Joseph.

Additionally, okra leaf plants give textile mills finer ingredients for such products as clothing and bed sheets, Hague said.

The variety “isn’t at the top of the cotton variety contest as far as yields go, but it really does produce high-quality cotton,” he said. “It really is fine cotton.”

Despite its benefits, farmers have been slow to adopt okra leaf, said Jack Jones, a former professor of agronomy at LSU who still helps coordinate experiments at the college’s research stations. Most of the okra leaf in Tensas is located on the Northeast Experiment Station’s 300-acre spread off Louisiana 605.

Reasons why it is not in, er, high demand, is that plants don’t shade out weeds as well as other cotton variants, Jones said. Also, okra leaf, developed in Australia in the 1980s, is not immune to the tobacco bugworm, which plagues cotton farms across the South.

“I think there might always be that stigma attached to the okra leaf cotton,” Jones said. “It’s just one of those things.”

And Hague, the agronomist, said he hopes people in Tensas don’t try to use the crops for recreational purposes.

“The best-case scenario if someone tried to smoke one would be for nothing to happen,” he said. “We aren’t too sure what the worst case would be, but I’m sure we wouldn’t want to see it.”