Are you looking for a unique plant to add to your garden that is both edible and useful? Why not try growing a unique member of the Cucurbitaceae family known as the luffa gourd?
I recently received several inquiries in the office about growing and harvesting this distinctive gourd. After doing a little reading and research, I simply could not pass up the opportunity to enlighten you with a few tips and attributes of the luffa genus.
This gourd group, also referred to as vegetable sponges, dishcloth gourds, running okra, strainer vine, Chinese okra, California okra, and loofah, are an easy, economical and eco-friendly star in the vegetable garden. While possessing value as a foodstuff, luffas are most desired by gardeners for their dense and fibrous insides that when dried prove useful for household cleaning and as a bath-time exfoliator.
According to a fact sheet from the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida Extension, luffa is a tropical to subtropical, warm-season, cold-sensitive, vigorously climbing and vining plant that originated in India. Two species of luffa are primarily grown in the United States: Luffa acutangula, or angled luffa; and Luffa cylindrical or Luffa aegyptiaca, smooth luffa.
Angled and smooth luffa varieties feature both male and female flowers. The male flowers are significantly larger than the females, bright yellow, and occur in clusters on the plant. The female flowers occur as single flowers with a small, thin ovary attached. An interesting fact is that the flowers of the angled luffa appear later in the day and stay open overnight. The primary pollinators are bees.
Luffa fruits resemble a large cucumber, but exhibit subtle differences between the types. Smooth luffa fruits are generally 1 to 2 feet in length and 4-5 inches thick. The outer skin is green (sometimes mottled) and smooth with long vertical lines. Angled luffa also features an outer green skin, but has sharp, raised ridges that run the length of the fruit.
The interior of both angled and smooth luffa varieties look like an immature cucumber when young, while mature luffas develop a stringy network that entangles a large number of flat blackish seeds. The seeds of the smooth luffa can be differentiated from the angled variety in their more narrow design and pitted texture.
The luffa variety does require a fairly long growing season (approximately four months), so starting luffa from seed indoors about four to six weeks ahead of the gardening season in our area is recommended.
Luffa gourds should be grown during the hot summer months in Northeast Ohio in order to accommodate their tropical to subtropical needs for heat and humidity. Gardeners should keep in mind that luffa plants will also require a large amount of growing space (approximately 3-4 ft. between plants in a single row) as well as a sturdy trellis or plant fence. Trellising is extremely important to a successful harvest, as fruits that come into routine contact with the ground will develop decay.
Soil preparation and fertilization requirements are similar to those required for squash and cucumbers.
Small, young luffa gourds less than 6 inches in length of the smooth and sweet variety are the preferred edible fruit. These can be prepared similarly to squash or eaten raw like cucumbers. Bitter types should not be eaten, as some poisonous properties have been recorded.
Mature green fruits offer the best sponges. The longer that you are able to leave the fruit on the vine, the more dense and fibrous the inner core will be.
Upon harvesting, you will need to prepare the gourd for further processing by softening the outer skin or rind. Here are several methods to complete this step of the process (you only need to choose one):
• Soak the gourd in a tub of water until the outer skin begins to soften (usually takes several days).
• Boil gourds in water for 15 minutes. Allow them to cool and then peel them. Cut gourds to desired size to fit in the kettle to boil.
• Place gourds in the freezer for 2 hours, then thaw and peel.
• Microwave on high power for 5-10 minutes. Cut the gourd to a manageable size to fit inside the microwave.
Once you have softened and removed the outer rind, you will need to remove the seeds. This can easily be done by shaking and pulling them out with your fingers. Then wash the remaining sponge core in mild, soapy water and rinse thoroughly to remove any soap residue.
Hang the sponge and allow to dry to a dull beige color. If a whiter sponge is desired, you can soak it in a simple whitening solution (1 part household bleach to 9 parts water).
The resulting coarse sponge is ready to be your very own homegrown, all-natural, multi-use, biodegradable cleaning aid, bath sponge or backscratcher!
Heather Neikirk is a Stark County Extension Educator in agriculture and natural resources for the Ohio State University (OSU) Extension. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) with an office in each of Ohio’s 88 counties. If you have questions about healthy food systems, farm to school, food production, small farms, women in agriculture or food gardening, contact her at 330-832-9856 or firstname.lastname@example.org.