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Abelmoschus is a genus of flowering plants in the mallow family, Malvaceae, which also includes cotton, cacao, and the durian fruit. Abelmoschus has about 15 species, native to tropical Africa, Asia, and northern Australia. Many of the plant's products are of economic agricultural importance, notably the vegetable okra and a fiber used to make paper in Korea and Japan.
Abelmoschus plants can reach 6.5 feet (2 meters) in height. Their flowers are five-petaled and either white or yellow, sometimes purple or red at the base. Caterpillars prey on many species.
Okra, also called lady's fingers or gumbo, is the fruit of Abelmoschus esculentus. It is a green, furry capsule up to 7 inches (18 cm) long, filled with numerous round seeds. Both "okra" and "gumbo" are words derived from West African names for the plant. It is believed that the plant was introduced to the New World during the early years of the Atlantic slave trade. Abelmoschus caillei, commonly called West African okra, is a similar plant also used as a food source.
Okra is a traditional food in Africa, the Mediterranean, and South Asia, as well as in areas of the New World such as Brazil, the Caribbean, and the Southern United States. In some cultures, the leaves are eaten as well as the fruit. An edible oil can also be produced from the seeds. Okra can be slimy when cooked, but this quality can be minimized by cooking it with acidic ingredients, quickly frying the whole pods, or slicing and cooking for a long time, as in the Louisiana stew gumbo.
Abelmoschus manihot, commonly called aibika, is used to make a starch important in the manufacture of traditional Japanese and Korean paper. In Japan, it is used to make washi, which has a great variety of traditional Japanese uses, including art forms like origami, traditional clothing, toys, and furniture. The similar Korean hanji is also used in traditional arts and crafts.
Abelmoschus moschatus, commonly called musk mallow, musk okra, and rose mallow, among many other names, is native to India, where is has traditional applications in cuisine and medicine. The musk mallow is very fragrant, with a scent similar to animal musk. The plant's oil was once used as a substitute for musk, but this practice has been discontinued, since the oil can cause the skin to become sensitive to light. The pods and leaves of the musk mallow are also eaten, similar to other Abelmoschus species, and the seeds are used to flavor coffee, tobacco, and liqueurs. Musk mallow has also traditionally been used as medicine to treat digestive and circulatory disorders, as well as joint pain.