934 Luffa aegyptiacaCommon Names: loofah, luffa, smooth loofah, sponge gourd, vegetable sponge Family: Cucurbitaceae (pumpkin Family)
Smooth loofah is a rampant, fast growing annual vine that produces pretty yellow flowers and strange looking fruits that are edible when immature and used as back scrubbers or sponges when fully mature. The vine can get more than 30 ft (9 m) long and scrambles over anything in its path. The large leaves are lobed and have silvery patches on the topsides. The flowers are showy and conspicuous, about 2-3 in (5-7.6 cm) across with five petals. The fruits are green, up to 24 in (61 cm) long and 3 in (7.6 cm) in diameter; they are cylindrical and smooth, and shaped like a club, slighter wider on one end. Small fruits look like okra or little cucumbers. On older fruits, the outer skin eventually dries and turns brown and papery.
Smooth loofah, Luffa aegyptiaca, is probably native to tropical Africa and Asia. It is grown throughout most of Asia for food and for pot scrubbers, and is cultivated commercially in the United States for export in Japan.
CultureLoofahs grow like weeds. They need little more than a sunny spot and something to climb on. Once the vines get 6-10 ft (1.8-3 m) long, they start producing male flowers. Usually within a few more days they start producing female flowers which are recognizable by the enlarged ovary at the base of the petals. The ovary will become the fruit if the flower gets pollinated. Light: Full sun. Moisture: Loofahs need plenty of water, especially when the fruits are developing. Hardiness: USDA Zones 7 - 10. Loofah is an annual that needs a long growing season to produce mature fruits. Gourds can be expected to mature around four months after planting. Immature gourds, for food, can be harvested within three months. If you don't have at least four months of warm weather, sow your loofah seeds indoors to give them a head start. (Like other members of the squash family, loofahs resent transplanting, so start your seeds in peat pots so later you can move them outside without disturbing the roots.) Propagation: Loofahs are easy to grow from seed. You can speed up germination by soaking the seeds in water overnight before sowing.
Loofah is a great choice to grow on a back fence or wall. Just give them plenty of room! The big leaves, with their splashes of silver, are showy. The flowers are attractive to people and insects. The immature fruits, 3-6 in (7.6-15 cm) in length, can be stir-fried whole or sliced, or they can be grated and used in soups and omelets. Larger fruits that are 4-6 in (10-15 cm) in length will need to be peeled because the skin becomes bitter. Allowed to mature on the vine until they start turning brown and their stems yellow, loofahs are easy to peel for use as back scrubbers or kitchen pot scrubbers. Wait until the outer skin is dry and brown, then peel it off and shake out the seeds. Some people soak the dry loofahs in water for a few days to make it easier to peel off the skin. After they're peeled, we like to soak the sponges in a weak solution (10:1) of household bleach to make them nice and white. Even with regular use, loofah sponges last for months, rubbing bodies or dishes. Loofahs are used as filters, too, and an edible oil is pressed from the seeds.
Ridged loofah (Luffa acutangula), or "vine okra", is a similar species which has white flowers and produces gourds that are ridged with ten angles. Vine okra is harder to peel for the sponge, but in the southern U.S. at least, it is more popular as a food crop. Both species of Luffa are very popular vegetables in China. In addition to the immature fruits, the Chinese also eat the young shoots, leaves and flower buds. In fact, fried gourd flowers are quite a delicacy, and the raw flowers are a nice addition to tossed salads.
Steve Christman 10/12/01; updated 9/30/03, 3/13/10