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Frequently Asked Luffa Sponge Gourd Questions

Here are a few common questions regarding the growing and use of the luffa sponge gourd.

How do I know when it is time to pick Luffa?

If being grown for food the fruits can be picked anytime until they start to grow fiber. Edible size luffa has a thin tight skin. The flowers and buds are sometimes eaten also. Once the the skin thickens and becomes tougher they are beginning to develop into fiber. If luffa is very bitter it may not be good to eat. If being grown for a fibrous loofah sponge, the seed pods must be allowed to mature on the vine. When the cellulose fiber of the loofah finishes developing, the skin loosens and often turns brown. Loss of weight is a good indicator the sponge is ready as it loses water. If the skin is a papery dry brown, the loofah is probably beyond ready. It's often better to pick them earlier, as soon as the skin feels like it will come off. The fibers tend to get darker and develop more dark spots the longer they hang past maturity. If the vines get killed by frost or freeze the pods should be peeled soon, even if they aren't fully mature. They won't develop any more. They can be allowed to hang on the vine for a few days but once any black areas appear they should be peeled immediately before the whole thing rots.

Why has my Luffa vine produced many flowers but no loofah?

The most likely cause is a lack of pollination. Bees and other pollinating insects are needed to produce a good crop. Even with an abundance of insects only a fraction of the flowers will pollinate. Bees are diverse and abundant here in the southern Appalachians, yet we only have about a 30% rate of successful flower pollination. Bees are having survival issues in some parts of the world. Insecticides used near the vines will reduce the pollinating insects. Hand pollination is an option. Use a cotton swab to move pollen or pull off a male flower and gently rub the yellow hair-like structures of the male flower against the middle parts of a female flower. Another possible cause is a lack of female or male flowers. Typically a larger single female flower grows on it's own stalk while clusters of male flowers bloom in sequence nearby on another stalk. Normally the ratio of female to male flowers ensures a reasonable amount of pollination. Some plants may not produce enough males or females. The ratios of fertilizer elements in the soil can affect flower ratios for luffa and other similar flowering plants. High nitrogen can increase the number of males while high phosphorous may encourage more females. So if you are lacking female flowers some additional phosphorous may help.

Why are my seeds slow to sprout?

Seed germination is equally dependent on moisture and temperature. If the seeds are moist but not sprouting then it may be too cold. The soil needs to be warm, near 70 degrees F (21 C) or warmer. For outdoor soil this roughly coincides with the local frost free date in spring. If the seeds have been stored in a hot dry place they may become hard. Hard seeds will take longer to sprout and may not germinate at all. To speed up germination of any seeds, wrap them in a wet towel in a warm place for a day or two before planting. You want just enough water to keep the seeds moist and humid but still allow air in. Even under ideal conditions some stubborn luffa seeds may take a long time to germinate. Over three weeks is not unusual. Normally it takes one to two weeks, sometimes less. We tested seeds that had hardened from being stored in a warm place. They took 24 days but most finally did germinate. Seeds planted in soil that is too cold or wet often decay without sprouting.

Why did my Luffa plants not survive?

Too much water or cold can wipe out a healthy luffa plant. The full grown vines are fairly tough and resilient. The smaller plants are not. The roots won't survive muddy water saturated soil. A drop in temperature will stop growth of luffa. A large vine may survive and grow if it warms up again but a seedling can die. Frost is fatal to all luffa vines. A cloth cover can save a vine from a light frost, but not a hard freeze. The small plants are easily wiped out by pests like slugs. Weeds will overpower the seedlings until they start to vine. Animals like deer have been known to eat luffa. Salt or sodium in the soil or water will have a negative effect on the plants. Most insects don't seem to like the taste of luffa leaves but a few may attack and cause leaf curling. This may happen when parts of a vegetable garden die off and hungry bugs move on to nearby green luffa vines. In some cases insecticide may be needed. Whether using chemicals or organic methods like insecticidal soap or neem oil, apply carefully and avoid getting any on the flowers. Why are buds turning brown and falling off? This is most likely a fungus. A brown circle forms at the base of a flower bud where it meets the stem. Before long the entire bud turns brown and falls off. This tends to be a larger problem in wet weather. Losing a few buds in a normal year is common and not a big deal. A long wet growing season can cause significant loss. Fungicides like those used for grape vines can help prevent further infection but won't reverse existing brown damage. The best defense is a good arrangement and location of the vines. The vines should be uncrowded so air can flow through. More sun exposure is better. Avoid getting the leaves wet when watering. Giving the vines a good balance of fertilizer elements to grow strong blooms will help too.

Why did the soap I made with Luffa fiber turn green?

If homemade luffa soap turned green inside it was from sap that remained in the section of fiber that was used. It is always best to thoroughly rinse any freshly picked loofahs as the fiber will contain a fairly large amount of plant sap. Even a pod that is completely dry with brittle brown skin still has some dried sap in the fibers. We use a hose to spray out sap. It takes a long time spraying to get most of it out. If it is very green, banging the loofah against a hard surface will knock more sap loose and then it should be sprayed again. Washing in soapy water is another way to get rid of sap. Squeeze and knead the loofah repeatedly and follow with a good rinse. Drying in the sun helps to break down any chlorophyll left behind. Most commercial loofah has been cleaned of all plant sap and won't cause this problem but it still might be a good idea to wash it well before using it in soap making.

What do I do with immature green pods if my Luffa vines have died?

Luffa vines are some of the longest lived annual gourd type vines. In our area most pods reach maturity but many vines often continue to grow and make pods until hard frost wipes out the leaves. It's typical to end the season with a few green immature luffa pods at different stages of development. The smallest ones may be edible. The larger ones won't be. Some of them may have good fiber and some won't. The first thing to do is figure out what you have. Pulling them off the dead vines and slamming the pods against a hard surface is the fastest way to find out. The outside will crack. If enough fiber is present it will hold the pod together and may be worth peeling. If it breaks or falls apart then it has not developed enough fiber. It can be a lot of work to get hard skin off but sometimes it gives good results. It may be a good idea to wear gloves if you have many to peel. It only takes a few tough ones to heavily exfoliate your hands. Simply slamming them on the ground without crushing is often enough to break the skin loose. It may take much longer to peel hard green pods. The seeds will likely be soft, white and not viable. The resulting sponges are usually less rigid and softer but may still be useful. If slamming and beating the pods doesn't sound like your idea of fun then freezing or lightly baking the pods will soften the skin and allow it to slide off more easily. It's still a good idea to first test the loofah pod by hitting it before investing time and effort in it.

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