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The loofah sponge is a popular household item used in the bath or for house cleaning. It’s typically portrayed in marketing as part of a seaside setting surrounded by seashells, is actually a vegetable! Meaning you can grow them in your garden. All they are is a mature luffa gourd’s fibrous flesh.
Loofahs belong to the Cucurbitaceae or gourd family, as do cucumbers, squashes, hard-shelled gourds, melons, and watermelons. There are two species of gourd that produce a loofah (aka luffa or loofa):
Luffa aegyptiaca (the ridged luffa, angled luffa, Chinese okra, or vegetable gourd)
L. acutangular aka. L. cyclindrica (the Egyptian luffa, smooth luffa, gourd loofa, or dishrag gourd).
Luffa aegyptiaca has long ridges down the entire length of the fruit while L. acutangular has a rounder profile with shallow creases. The two species can be used interchangeably. Both are vigorous annual vines with yellow flowers.
(Credit: Chatchaisurakram/Getty Images)
While luffas are usually grown for sponges, their flowers, flower buds, and young fruit can be eaten. It tastes like summer squash and goes well in soups, salads, and other dishes. For the luffa to become a sponge, it must be left to mature on the vine until it turns brown. But if you want to eat it, pick it early while it’s still green.
Luffa-derived sponges are perfect for washing your face, body, dishes, floor, car, or anything because they’re tough on dirt but non-abrasive. So how can you grow these yourself?
What You Need:
Compost (peat-free organic compost works best)
Pots (9cm at first, then larger ones (bucket-sized) for potting up later on)
Seeds (can order online or buy at your local nursery/garden center)
Propagator (for cold regions – loofah seeds need 25 degrees Celsius for good germination)
Watering can (the compost should stay moist but not saturated)
How To Plant Luffa
The plants need:
Well-drained but moist soil
Soil enriched with lots of compost or well-rotted manure
The vines get long (30 feet on average), so they need a sturdy trellis to clamber over or lots of room to roam.
They need 150 to 200 warm days to ripen. If you live in more northern areas, start seeding in 6-inch pots indoors a few weeks before, then transplant them outdoors when the weather’s warm enough. Putting your pots into a heated propagator box or mat next to a windowsill is best for success.
Plant extra seeds because luffa doesn’t germinate easily.
Soak the seeds for several hours in lukewarm water before sowing to encourage better germination.
Sow the seeds about 1.5cm deep into the compost soil.
Avoid overwatering because it can cause the seeds to rot.
It may take about 2-3 weeks to sprout, especially if it’s not warm enough.
(Credit: Joloei/Getty Images)
It’s time to pot them up when the roots start to show through the holes at the pot’s base. Either move them to bigger pots or straight into the ground outdoors.
At this stage, you’ll need to give the vine some support for them to grow up. You can use a hazel stick or wigwam of bamboo canes stuck into the soil or a thin rope strung from the roof. Either way, the support needs to be strong because the plant grows vigorously.
Expect a very long growing season. To help with fruit ripening, keep the compost moist (never saturated).
Water the plants in the morning to discourage mildew. If mildew happens, cut off and bin the affected leaves.
As the fruits begin to form, keep count. When three or four (per plant) have grown to 15-20cm long, remove any other new fruits to focus the plant’s energy in ripening the first fruits.
(Credit: Quangpraha/Getty Images)
Leave the fruits to wither on the vine for as long as possible for maximum sponge fiber development.
They’re ready to pick when they are no longer green but dark yellow or brown. The fruit will feel lightweight, and the skin will start to separate from the fiber inside.
Peeling and Processing:
(Credit: Martin Stellar/Eyeem/Getty Images)
Cut off the top and the bottom a few centimeters.
Peel off the tough outer skin. To do so, lodge your finger under the skin and separate it from the fibers by sliding your finger between them. If it’s difficult, try soaking the fruit in water for a few minutes to make dislodging easier.
Shake out the seeds. Keep the plump ones for the next planting season. Lay them spread out on a paper towel at room temperature to dry. If you’re having a hard time getting the seeds out, you can put the sponge in a bowl of warm water and squeeze.
Wash the sap out. You can use a bowl of water with dishwashing soap or a strong jet of water.
To give your sponge a uniform tan color, you can treat it with non-chlorine laundry bleach.
Lastly, leave your sponges in the sun to dry, frequently turning until complete.
To store, put the dry sponges in a cloth bag, and they’ll keep for years.
Harvesting for Eating:
Pick flowers, flower buds, and small green fruit using a sharp knife or hand pruner (if the stem doesn’t snap easily with your fingers).
They can be consumed raw, sauteed, or cooked in stews, soups, and curries. They can also be breaded and fried.
The vegetable is very healthy. It’s rich in vitamin A, vitamins B5 and B6, vitamin C, copper, manganese, and potassium.
Using Your Loofah
You can use the sponge as is, cut it into sections, or cast it into bars of soap. Some people even use dried fiber to make table mats, filters, insoles, sandals, and other products.
Dermatologists recommend you let the sponge get completely dry between uses and only use it for up to a month before replacing it. Loofahs that have reached the end of their lifecycle can be tossed into the compost.
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