A Legacy of Luffa
by Elizabeth Harwick
In an area where corn, cotton and soybeans define a true farmer, my grandfather was a true eccentric. The rumor goes that he made a bet with one of his friends that he could grow a sponge of sorts, something that they could not only eat but that they could also use year round. The bet was made and my legacy of luffa began.
Luffa (Luffa cylindrical) is grown commercially in China, Korea, Japan, and Central America and can still be found wild in its country of origin, India. While in my family luffa was grown as a source of bragging rights and a novelty for the children, it is today, becoming more widely cultivated commercially in the Southeast and some parts of the Deep South. It is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, and is also known as Chinese Okra, dishrag sponge, smooth gourd or loofah.
Luffa is commonly recognized in such stores as Bed Bath & Beyond, the Garden Emporium, and Pier 1 Imports as an addition to a beautiful menagerie of bath items. While this is the most common use in the United States, it is also used as air filters, packing material, marine steam engine filters, insulation, and stuffing for shoulder pads as well as mattresses.
No one knows exactly how my grandfather came into our seeds. As far as anyone knows he never traveled outside of North Carolina and rarely left our little town. Some think that there is a possibility that one of my uncles or my father brought back seeds from their journeys overseas with the Army or possibly that he obtained them from our local agriculture extension office. There was a time in the late 40's that the government was trying desperately to find something else that could be grown in our area. Whatever the truth may be, my whole family is grateful for not only the seed but also the memories that have come with them.
Growth and Cultivation
Luffa should be grown in an area that has a long growing season or started indoors; it will take approximately 95-116 days to reach full maturity. Starting the seeds indoors and then transplanting outside after the threat of frost has passed will give those that have shorter growing seasons a good shot at growing these unusual plants.
I have read in several different magazines that luffa seed are very slow and sporadic to start, I have found otherwise. My family would always sprout our seeds by wrapping them in moist paper towels for about 3-4 days and placing them in a warm area with diffused sunlight. It was the one event that meant spring was coming. Long after my grandfather was not able to have his huge garden anymore he would still sprout the luffa seed and give them to our neighbors or to more distant members of our family. He always said it was habit to do it every year but I think secretly he continued to do it so that he could watch the faces of the youngest members of our family as we slowly pulled back the paper towels to discover the newly sprouted plants.
After the seeds had sprouted, we would then transfer them to a biodegradable seed pot (such as Jiffy Peat Pots or the do it yourself newspaper kind) so as to not disturb the root structure when transplanting. By using this method of seed starting we were able to maximize our seeds by not having to thin out any. After placing one sprouted seed per peat pot, we then sprinkled with a potting mixture just enough to cover the seed and to let the sprout show through. After 2-3 true leaves developed it was time to put them into the ground.
The vertical method of growing these plants is most highly recommended. There are many ways to establish a vertical garden, but for us the most economical has always been the following: place 2 poles approximately 6-8 feet apart, reaching 6 feet tall and then stretching chicken wire tightly across creating a fence of sorts. Placing a luffa plant approximately every 10 inches will give it ample space to grow upward and outward. While the luffa vine is a very hardy climber it will not initially seek out the trellis, therefore it must be hand trained initially. Keeping in mind that luffa will reach to approximately 12 inches long; remove any early setting fruits that may appear on the bottom of the plant. Luffa tends to be very sensitive to obstacles, if it were to meet with the ground or another luffa it may begin to grow in an odd shape or worse begin to rot. Also by maintaining a smaller amount of luffa per vine (approximately 6-8) it will also ensure that your fruits will reach their optimum size.
The luffa much like it's cousin the cucumber enjoys a soil pH of approximately 6.0 - 6.8 with high levels of potassium and phosphorous. Upon transplanting, a side dressing of fertilizer may be added and if needed, again during the first signs of flowering or fruit setting (approximately 6 weeks after the seed sprouted). The most important aspect of growing luffa is to make sure that it has proper irrigation. If the plant suffers a drought during its growth the fruit will appear misshapen and small.
The leaves of a healthy vine have a glorious deep blue green appearance. The flowers are a vibrant yellow and can stretch to approximately 5 inches in size with correct growing conditions. The flowers are formed male and female separately and are open for pollination only 1 day. The serious luffa grower can benefit by placing a beehive within a close proximity of the crop to assist in pollination.
The fruit itself will be a deep green reaching to approximately 12 - 18 inches long. It will have a smooth cylindrical shape, resembling a cucumber.
The harvest of the luffa is one of the easiest and most satisfying of any vegetable that I have had the honor of being exposed to. While the use of the luffa as an edible vegetable is not common in the United States, in its early immature stage it can be harvested and prepared like squash or can be eaten raw like the cucumber. During this time the luffa has not had the opportunity to develop its inner fibrous netting that it is more commonly grown for.
The luffa is ready to be harvested for its sponge when the outer shell has begun to turn brown and the seeds can be heard rattling inside when the luffa is shaken. Typically this will occur after the first killing frost. After harvesting, cut the blossom end off of the luffa and shake the seeds free (be sure to save them for next year). Place the luffa in a pot of hot water and let soak for approximately 2-3 hours. At the end of the soaking period, the skin on the outside of the luffa should be able to slide off much in the same manner as roasting a pepper to remove its skin.
The sponge that is harvested will more than likely contain small spots and be darker than the ones that are commonly seen in department stores. If you care about the appearance, the creamy whitish look can be obtained by soaking the luffa in a mild bleach or hydrogen peroxide solution. This of course is not necessary for common everyday uses such as pot scrubs or whitewall tire scourers.
We lived in a very small community, so you would assume that by the third or fourth year of growing luffa everyone would have seen one, but no matter what, my grandfather and then my father would find someone every year that had not seen our luffa. They would begin a conversation and then suddenly you would hear, "Hey, lem'me show you something. . ." and you knew that you would soon see them come around the back of the car, reach in to the back seat and pull out a dried luffa gourd.
If at all possible, try to obtain seeds from other growers that have the quality fruit that is desired. Seeds are available now generally in the mainstream markets but may have fibers that tend to be not as strong or the fruits not as large as ones that may be obtained from a long time luffa gardener.
Out of all the 7 children that my grandfather had, most married into other farms that had livestock, grew corn or cotton or joined the military, and really in the everyday living of one's life luffa never came into much concern. Everyone seemed to think that everyone else had a couple of seed left so no one really thought about it, until we all got together finally for a family reunion a couple of years ago. We soon realized that no one had any of these seed left and that we had probably lost those seed forever. Luckily, I mentioned this to a neighbor who quickly replied, "Oh I've got some of those seed that your granddaddy gave me years ago." So luckily, and now with more care, the legacy of luffa in our family can continue.
All questions or comments are welcome! Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author:My name is Elizabeth Harwick and I have lived in a small sailing community in North Carolina for the majority of my life. My love for herbs and all things gardening began when I was about 3 years old, helping my father plant watermelon seeds. Ours was a very small, family farm and we did not have complex farming equipment. I was the seed-sower. One day when I finally got up the courage to ask why exactly it had to be ME that planted an acre of watermelon seeds (1 3/4" apart) my father looked at me calmly and said "Well, you're closer to the row." Thus, began my garden journey and my lesson that to maintain a garden you must also maintain a sense