Loofah Sponges

We talk about the joy of loofah–or luffa– (Luffa aegyptiaca) all the time, but I don’t believe we’ve every blogged about it here. I was reminded of it when we received a letter from Candace, who heard us on a podcast talking about how much fun it was to grow loofah sponges. She said:

I wanted to thank you for that part of the interview in particular.  I decided to grow some this summer and it has been a great joy.  It is a beautiful vine, and the flowers are always loaded with bees, bumble and honey and all kinds of other insects. By the way, luffa are delicious.  Mine has been eatable at a diameter of 1 to 1.5 in and a foot long with no problem.  There are several recipes on line for them as well. They are a definite interesting grabbing item to share at get togethers, pulling the skin off and shaking out the seeds.  I’ve gotten several people interested in growing them that have never grown anything before by showing them the luffa.

Thanks for the feedback, Candace! And thanks for reminding us about this great plant. It’s just fantastic to be able to grow your own cleaning tools. They’re expensive in stores–too expensive to consider using on dishes and such–and just try to find one that’s organic and locally harvested!

Most people think loofah sponges come from the sea, but they are actually members of the cucumber family and grow on vines. With their skins on, they look like zucchini sized cukes. They’re quite attractive and fast growing. The vines can reach 20 feet if they’re happy, and the fruits form on big yellow flowers. They are so prolific and easy to grow (given the right conditions) that you only need a crop every few years to keep you in sponges.

We’ve never tried to eat loofah, mostly because we’ve been too greedy for sponges. But we’re going to chill on that next time around and eat a few. 

The only catch with loofah is that they need a long growing season: 4 months from sprouting to get a sponge, 3 months from spouting to harvest the fruits to eat. This does limit its cultivation to more southern latitudes, unless you can maybe get a jump start by sprouting indoors. 

Some tips:

  • The seeds need warmth to sprout–sort of like tomato seeds. They won’t start in cold soil. Start them indoors over heat if you have to. 
  • Basic growing requirements are lots of sun, lots of water, warm weather and time. Again, three months for food, for months for sponges.
  • Here in SoCal March is a good month to plant the seeds directly in the ground.
  • Provide support for the vine: it’s a climber. The vines are long and the fruit big.
  • Some people harvest for sponges after the skins turn brown. I find that if you wait that long the sponge itself can be blotchy/discolored. This is purely an aesthetic problem. Many people bleach their sponges in a mild bleach solution, so this doesn’t matter. I don’t bleach mine, so I like to harvest while they’re still green–though I think they might be a little harder to peel at that point.
  • It might help if you throw your harvest in a trash can full of water and let it sit overnight before you peel. Then you can peel in the can, in water, because it’s a messy business. Or do it however you want. You can’t really screw this up. Don’t worry too  much about how or when you peel them. You’ll get a sponge.
  • The seeds float out under water, or can be shaken out. The later is an excellent task for pesky children.
  • Each mature loofah yields tons of seeds, but be sure to save plenty because the germination rates aren’t high. Save seeds from the best specimens.

ETA: More info here: http://www.luffa.info/

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    1. Mine didn’t take quite that long to reach maturity. Perhaps I have a different species, or maybe these tropical plants just like the sultry weather down south.

    2. How interesting! I never knew these “sponges” were from the cucumber family. I was all set to try them when I realized I’d have a hard time growing them in this SF Bay Area fog…

      Oh well, thanks for the info.

    3. I think I’ll have to try this. I’m further north than you are, but if they’re started inside I might be able to make this happen.

    4. Hi from the Pacific Northwest, where we barely managed to eke out a few tomatoes this year, my RS-inspired attempt to grow chayote stalled at about five inches of vine, and loofah, which I once grew in Vermont, is not even worth trying. Sigh.

    5. Loofah are so fantastic in clear soups! My parents are Taiwanese, so my dad always makes a point of growing as many plants as he can each season. Most get let go into sponges when we don’t harvest them soon enough for eating. I think my dad just leaves them on the vine until they brown and completely dry up on their own, then the skin flakes off really easily. I don’t think I’ve seen discoloration of the loofah when it completely dries by itself this way. Maybe it needs some kind of curing period?

    6. mjlai, I thought they just dried on the vine or dried off the vine for using as a sponge. So, I was confused at the peeling of them.

      The illustration at the head of the blog is worthy of framing. It has been in my mind’s eye all day.

    7. I have saved some seeds for three years from a plant an aunt grew. I wonder if they will germinate next year. I hope!
      Bikejuju, my chayote didn’t do well either after a great first show. Don’t know if it was the unusual heat/drought or the soil I had them in. I’m in zone 9, humid but real dry lately!

    8. You learn something new every day! I would never have guessed that a Loofah was an edible plant! Sounds like a fun idea to add loofah sponges next year along with our other plants. This summer was our first attempt at gardening and it really went quite well. With the exception of hoses being spread all over the yard. I really wish we would have gotten a bit more help from mother nature.

    9. @Poor BikeJuju! I’m sorry you guys had such a sucktastic summer. Would a greenhouse be of any help? Erik’s mother’s Greek neighbor has a network of ramshackle psuedo-greenhouses in the backyard so that he can grow the ingredients of a classic Greek salad (tomatoes, cukes) all year ’round. Though admittedly, our winters can be warmer than your summers. 🙁

      @Mjlai: I’ve been looking at recipes online and am now all hot and bothered for luffa soup. Unfortunately, I’ll have to wait til next June!

    10. been silently following you guys for a while. Just wanted to say the posts over the last several weeks have been very inspirational. Thanks. You guys rock!

    11. In reading your article, I was wondering if you’re talking about the same loofahs I’ve known down here in Texas. Here, if you drop loofah seeds on the ground, you _will_ have loofah plants. They grow like kudzu up the walls, to the point that we had to be careful not to spill the seeds. Perhaps it’s the hot climate? Granted, it’s not shown up that way in the last 2 years, due to our persistent drought, but we’ve not tried to grow it again, for fear of another attack of the killer (2 foot long!) loofahs.

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