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Loofah End ViewHello and welcome to Luffa.info!  Here is information, photos and video about the amazing Luffa sponge gourd.  Luffa sponge gourds have many names, both common and scientific.  They are known as loofah, smooth loofah, loofah sponge, loofa, luffa, loufa, loufah, luffah, sponge gourd, Chinese okra, elephant okra, dishrag gourd, towel gourd, and other common names in many different languages.  The scientific name for the plant we grow is Luffa aegyptiaca. It may also be known as Luffa cylindrica. There are several other related species within the Luffa genus like Luffa acutangula, the angled or ridged luffa and Luffa operculata, the ball luffa or sponge cucumber.

Luffa fiber is a green renewable resource with many uses. We have been growing and enjoying our natural luffa fiber since 1995 at home in Carter County Tennessee. We went to organic growing methods in the 21st century.

WHAT IS A LOOFAH?

A loofah is a fibrous plant seed pod. The luffa plant is a cucurbit, a group of plants including gourds, pumpkins, and cucumbers. It grows as a flowering annual vine. The pollinated flowers grow cylindrical green fruits that eventually develop into a seed pod filled with many intertwined cellulose fibers. The outer skin is removed to reveal the "loofah" inside.

Sea sponges are members of the animal kingdom. They grow on the sea floor and filter food out of the water. The word sponge is often used to describe loofah and man made "sponges" with absorbent properties like sea sponges.

USES FOR LUFFA/LOOFAH SPONGES

When fully matured the fruits become a tough mass of fiber that makes a great scrubbing sponge.  These natural cellulose fiber wonders of the vegetable world have many uses. They can exfoliate loose cells from your skin and make you squeaky clean or shine up your dirty dishes. Loofahs are most excellent in the bath or shower. The exfoliating action leaves your skin feeling the cleanest and tightest it could possibly be.  Scrubbing your back with a luffa sponge in the bath or shower is an incredibly pleasurable experience.  Home and professional artisan craft soap makers include slices of luffa fiber in their creations to add an extra cleaning boost to their soaps. Shredded or powdered luffa fibers can also be mixed into soap making mixtures before pouring into a mold.

Luffa sponges are great for washing items like large pots and other containers.  We use them for cleaning almost everything, including cars, boats, plastic buckets, and anything that needs scrubbed but can't withstand steel wool.  Non stick cookware is one example.

A large loofah or a smaller piece on a handle or rope makes a great back scratcher. They can be cut into many shapes for scrubbing pads, padding, and other craft uses. The loofahs can be cut lengthwise with the core removed to make sheets of sponge material. These sheets of luffa material can be sewn into items like table hot pads, sandals, bath mats, hats, or anything else you can imagine.

A piece of loofah can be used to apply paint for artistic effect. It can also impart texture to painted walls or plaster. Place the long side into a paint pan with paint barely covering the bottom. Rub excess paint off the loofah on newspaper or cardboard. The best effect is achieved with the smallest amount of paint. Too much and it looks like a blob. Simply push on to the surface and lift straight off. The final result may resemble a wallpaper pattern. Luffa fiber is a green alternative to rock wool as a root medium in hydroponic plant growing systems. It is environmentally friendly and may be produced on site by the grower. The fibers work well to maintain proper moisture levels for seedling growth. It's another amazing luffa application that someone told us about.   

The luffa buds, flowers, and soft young fruits are sometimes cooked and eaten like squash or okra. We eat small luffa fruits when in season, but disclaim any legal responsibility for any bad reactions anyone might have from consuming luffa. Eat at your own risk. Those with sensitivities to certain foods should proceed with caution. Unknown allergy potential. That said, millions of people around the world eat parts of the plant. Luffa has been an important food source in many cultures. The tough fibrous vines are not edible, but leaves and roots may be eaten by some people depending how bitter they are. Sap in the luffa vines and leaves contains a bitter compound with a musky smell that seems to repel insects and animals. It tastes similar to the bitterness sometimes found in cucumbers, a close plant relative also in the Cucurbitaceae family.

Luffa, like many plants, contains a variety of substances. Parts of the plant and seeds have been used for the medicinal properties. Powdered luffa fibers have been an ingredient in traditional Chinese herbal medicine. One Egyptian study found the seeds of luffa reduced blood glucose levels in animals. More medicinal references can be found on our links page.

The edible size fruits taste something like a cross between a zucchini and a cucumber. Some luffa varieties may produce fruits that are too bitter to eat. Peeling the skin off reduces bitterness but is not usually necessary. If it tastes bad, don't eat it. The many varieties we've grown have all tasted good to us, with some being better than others. Many commonly cultivated varieties are edible. Luffa of several different species are consumed by people around the world, especially in Asia and Africa. Edible luffa can sometimes be found in markets with Asian style vegetables. We like them sliced in a stir-fry or just sauteed in a little olive oil. Seasoning with a dash of soy sauce and cayenne pepper makes a tasty appetizer. The big yellow flowers have a crunchy green flavor similar to celery or cucumber. Luffa flowers make a colorful and unique salad.

Large whole loofahs are a conversation starter. People tend to find them very interesting and useful. Some of our loofah sponges end up as gifts for family and friends. We sell all the rest to an artisan soap maker.  If you are looking for some loofahs or seeds you can find them at the sources we have listed on our luffa sources page.

CARE AND MAINTENANCE OF LUFFA SPONGES

Loofah SpongeNew unused luffa fiber can be stored for years if it is kept dry. It needs to be covered where dust won't settle on the surface. Working luffa sponges will last a surprisingly long time if they are allowed to dry between uses, usually a few months.  When they stay wet all the time they tend to deteriorate more. Hanging on a hook or placing on end may help your loofah to dry. A luffa sponge can hold some dirt and should not be used for different purposes. If you scrub your cooking grill with it, then don't use it on your skin. It is probably difficult to fully sterilize a loofah. Enough heat applied long enough would do it but might damage the luffa fibers. A short soak in a mild bleach solution gets close, certainly killing off a vast majority of surface germs. A wash with antibacterial hand soap should quickly remove many germs too. Sunlight can help keep your loofah in top shape by drying it faster and irradiating the surface with natural ultraviolet light. The drying UV rays will make it harder for germs, mold, or mildew to grow.

Some commercial luffa sponges are a light color from being bleached.  Natural mature sponges can be any shade of dark brown to bright white in color.  Most loofahs are fine in their natural state without any bleaching. If you want to lighten luffa fibers, they can be soaked in a weak chlorine bleach solution for about an hour or so.  Some commercial growers may also use a hydrogen peroxide or caustic solution.  Bleaching them for too long can weaken the fibers. Bleached sponges may look better for commerce. They are cleaner and less likely to contain insects or other organic matter. Green and/or dark stained luffa can benefit from bleaching. Exposure to sunlight can also lighten the color but not as dramatically as bleach. Leaving them in the sun for a day gives the loofah a rougher slightly scratchier feel. Leaving a loofah outside for longer periods will tend to break down the fibers.

A LITTLE ABOUT LUFFA VARIETIES

Some garden varieties of luffa are coarser, less dense, and more flexible than the thicker pieces of commercial loofah. They are typically hardy fast growing types that give the average gardener a better chance at success than the high fiber ones. The commercial loofah is grown for consistent size and fiber density. Most are grown in a hot climate and have the benefit of a long growing season. Denser loofah is better for uses that require strength and durability. A less dense loofah is often flexible and more easily molded into things like luffa soap. By the way, any loofah can be made more flexible by getting it wet. The thickness and number of the individual fibers can vary greatly among loofahs.  A hard or soft sponge can have thin or thick fibers. Usually the more fiber, the stiffer the loofah, but finer fibers can result in more flexibility. There are also varieties that are grown primarily for eating and these may produce less fiber. Luffa can cross pollinate with nearby vines so it might be difficult to grow different varieties together. Whatever characteristics the luffa have, they can be altered somewhat by careful selection of the seeds. The plants have a lot of natural variability among different plants grown from the same seeds and even between luffa pods grown on the same vine. One vine could grow several different sizes and shapes.

We started with a typical garden variety and kept saving our best seeds. Over time, the quality and quantity of our sponges improved. We saved seeds from the earliest large sponges with good fiber. After a few seasons, they were arriving sooner and larger. We tried growing seeds from many sources and did find some thicker fiber that would still reach maturity in our climate. Generally the higher the density of the fiber, the longer it takes to reach maturity.

Luffa pods can grow arrow straight, slightly curved, or very curved.  One luffa variety grows very short and wide sponges.  These are typically used for pot scrubbers.  Another type, grown more often for food, produces extremely thin long fruits.  Seeds from straight ones tend to grow more straight ones, but a few curved ones usually appear.  The curved ones make good back scratchers in the shower.  When small, the fruits are very flexible and will conform to whatever shape they are against.  This can result in some unusual shapes.  Loofahs can also be much wider on one or both ends, usually the bottom.

The ridged or angled luffa (Luffa acutangula) is a different species of luffa.  It produces fiber but is often used as a food crop. It can be identified by the pronounced ridges that run along the skin lengthwise. It tends to be thinner, bent or curved, and more elongated than the Luffa aegyptiaca. Edible luffa found in markets is probably more often acutangula than the aegyptiaca species. Luffa acutangula is also commonly known as Patola in the Tagalog language of the Philippines. Luffa foetida is another scientific name for the angled luffa.

The ball luffa or sponge cucumber (Luffa operculata) is another cultivated species. It is native to South America and produces rounded sponge pods with a spiky exterior skin.

GROWING YOUR OWN LUFFA SPONGES

Growing your own loofahs is fun and rewarding. The plants are quite vigorous once they get established. They grow on vines that can reach 30 feet(9m) in length. A strong supporting trellis is a must. Chain link fence and lattice works great. The more support points the better. The fruits get very heavy. Luffa can be grown as a ground vine but it must be a weedless well drained area. The pods will tend to grow curved and deformed but may still get large. Luffa can often survive in partial shade with some direct sunlight but grow better in full sun. In a very hot dry climate they will need some watering as they tend to wilt if it gets too dry. Yearly rainfall here is typically 40 to 50 inches (102-127 cm) and our vines don't normally need extra water after the roots have developed. If the leaves are wilting noticeably they may need additional water.

These plants grow as an annual with subtropical growth characteristics. They need a long hot growing season. Places like the US Gulf Coast and much of the southern US are plenty hot. Starting the plants indoors may work for cooler climates. We live around 36 degrees north latitude at 1700 ft(520m) altitude, USDA zone 7a. Find your zone here. Our outdoor season is long enough to produce some mature sponges planted outside from seed but later ones are often lost to frost. Starting them indoors and moving them outside after the last frost normally gives us a few more loofahs in the fall. Planting directly into the ground is almost as good for us. One year cool weather stunted our transplanted seedlings while seeds we planted in the ground sprouted and surpassed the older plants. Warm weather is necessary for growth. Germination rates may be slightly lower for outside plantings.  Putting the seeds in a moist environment before planting helps increase germination rates.  There can be a lot of variability in the time needed for germination.  It could be 3 days or over 3 weeks!  Usually it is about 7 to 10 days in ideal conditions. The drier and harder the seeds are, the longer they take to germinate. 

The time it takes for luffa growth, flowering, and maturity can vary widely between plants. It usually requires around 160 days or more, but it could be anywhere from 130 to 220 days or more. Some of the sources on our luffa links page also have botanical and growing information.

The small seedlings grow slowly while the roots become established.  Once they begin to make a vine the increase in growth rate is phenomenal.  After 1 to 2 months of growing, the flower clusters appear.  The flowers bloom in an orderly progression as the vine lengthens. Typically there is a larger solitary female flower on a thick stem and a thinner stem with a cluster of male flowers.  When the vines are blooming, the bright yellow flowers attract many pollen gathering creatures including butterflies, ants, and bees.  Bumblebees love luffa flowers and will travel great distances to reach them. Ants enjoy cruising all over the vines and cause little or no harm while assisting in pollination. Some female flowers will wilt and fall off while the pollinated ones will form a luffa seed pod. The male flowers fall off after they bloom in sequence up the stalk. The bright yellow flowers are quite pretty and abundant. See our luffa photos for some examples. 

When the flowers get pollinated, slender cucumber-like vegetables appear. The fruits stay soft until the skin thickens. Then the fiber and seeds begin to form. The vines continue to grow and produce new fruits while the older loofah pods mature. They can be harvested whenever they feel ready. The earlier ones can be picked while the vine is still growing. Typically they turn a yellow/brown color and become lighter in weight from drying out.  Mature luffa pods can be any color from green to nearly black. Very small sponges can be mature and very large ones may not be ready. Size and color doesn't matter much. The important thing is that they start to lose water weight. Time to maturity varies considerably as our sponges are picked from early September to late November. The last of our loofahs are harvested after a frost occurs and the vines quickly die off. The more mature they are, the better the sponge fiber quality. Some smaller ones may mature more quickly yielding a small soft sponge good for washing delicate skin.     

HARVESTING AND PREPARING LUFFA SPONGES

When the loofahs are ready for harvest they can be peeled. The skin loses green color and becomes looser when mature. The mature sponges begin to dry and lose water weight.  If the sponges have reached full growth and feel light, they will be ready to peel.  If they are green, the loofah may contain some fiber but be much harder to peel. If it falls apart when you try to peel, it doesn't have enough fiber and is not mature enough.

It is always best to peel them as soon as possible if the vine has died. The longer the skin stays on, the darker the sponges will get. Peeling greener luffa is difficult but can be done if needed.  Throwing the loofah at the ground is one trick. It's good exercise for relieving your stress too. The bad ones will break apart, while the good ones will crack and loosen the skin. Letting the luffa pods freeze and thaw once on the vine also makes them easier to peel.

If they have matured they are usually easy to get open.  Getting them wet or soaking in water may help the opening process but is optional. After peeling, high water pressure from a hose sprayer can remove much of the remaining green and brown coloration. Wash them well, squeeze out excess water, lay out to dry, rotate occasionally as the water settles in the lower side.  Placing them outside in the sun and wind dries them quickly.  The sun also tends to lighten the color. Hanging or placing the loofahs on a screen works well for drying too.

If they are stained, a soak in some bleach and water will lighten them considerably.  A wet harvest season tends to cause more decay and brown spots in the sponges.  An unusually dry fall in one particular year yielded sponges that were very light in color, an almost fluorescent white.  For a photo illustrating the extreme color range of some natural late wet weather sponges vs. earlier dry weather sponges click here.  Getting all the seeds out can be a challenge, but the drier the sponges are, the easier the seeds will fall out. Save the best ones for next year. You can also cut open the sponges in any shape you want to remove seeds or make a loofah fiber mat.

Seeds should be allowed to dry enough so they won't rot or mold and then stored in a cool place. Refrigerate or freeze in a sealed airtight container for long term storage. We've had reports of seeds as old as ten years still germinating. If the seeds are allowed to get too hot and dry they become hard. Some hard seeds can still germinate but may take a month to sprout.

 

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