Grow your own Luffa sponges
Gardeners, behold [link updated with new link; text below from old link]:
For the third autumn in a row I am pleased to be harvesting my shower sponge for next year. Now I know that must sound like a strange statement but it’s true. Many people are surprised when they find out I grow my own Luffa sponges. “Don’t those come from the sea?”, is the standard question to which I respond that the Luffa is a vegetable you can grow in your very own garden.
This annual requires a long growing season of frost free weather. But for those of you in colder climates it is possible to start seedlings indoors and then transplant them outside allowing you to grow your own sponges. The vine can grow to great lengths producing beautiful yellow flowers all summer. Next spring I will be sure to remind you to start your sponges. Right now though I am focused on the harvest. I almost waited too late to get my Luffa started this spring so I was lucky to get a hand full of mature sponges.
I pick the fruit just after the first frost kills the vine. Next I peel off the outer skin.
Then comes the process of “milking” the sponge- squeezing it repeatedly from the middle towards the ends in an attempt to remove the fleshy substance inside. Plenty of seeds will come out as well.
I set aside some of the seeds from my best sponges for next year. If a sponge is discolored I soak it for 5 minutes in warm water with a little bleach. Add a length of hemp rope if you like to hang up your shower sponge. A large crop can yield quite a few Christmas gift sure to have your friends and family talking. Try growing your own Luffa sponge next year.
UPDATE: For those of you curious where to buy Luffa seeds, take a look at this online garden store!
UPDATE 2: Another note
Quite a few people were interested in my recent harvest of Luffa shower sponges. I thought I’d explain a bit more about the plant and the process of growing it. Luffa aegyptiaca Mill. or as it is commonly called, the Loofah, is a vegetable native to South America. It can be eaten when it is smaller. I have stir fried them but only up to a size of about 4 inches. After that they become tough like an over ripe squash. Left to fully mature each fruit produces an excellent sponge. Seeds for this plant are readily available through vegetable catalogs and you’ll only have to buy seeds your first year- one mature Luffa sponge will produce at least 30 seeds. Some will produce many more.
Frost kills the plant and it needs 4 to 5 months of growth to produce sponges. Here in North Carolina I can plant seeds directly in the ground near the date of the last frost and then harvest a modest number of sponges later in autumn. If I wanted a better yield or if I lived further north I would start them indoors several weeks, maybe even a month before the date of the last frost and transplant them outdoors after frost danger has passed. Planting them on the sunny, southern side of your property will help. They are natural climbers and are happiest running up the sides of a trellis or even the outer walls of your home. I sprinkle a few seeds near, but not in front of, one of my south facing gutter downspouts. When the plant sprouts it climbs up the downspout and along my gutters. It doesn’t impede the flow of water and in the fall when the plant dies I easily pull it off of my home. The large Luffa leaves help to shade the hottest side of my house in the summer. I am certain they could be grown just as well on a large trellis. They can get quite long. I’ve grown vines that exceeded 15 feet in length.
Sometimes Luffas left to fully mature and turn brown or Luffas that ripen lying on the ground will have brown splotches of color throughout the sponge. For some people this isn’t a problem. Others however do not like bathing with something that is several different shades of rust. After I remove the outer skin and squeeze out the pulp and seeds from inside the Luffa, I often soak them in a weak solution of bleach and warm water for about 5 minutes. This is especially true of the Luffa sponges I give as gifts. The process usually lightens the color and gets rid of dark brown spots. After doing so I let them dry thoroughally by hanging them up or placing them on a drying rack. It is also possible to dye the Luffas if you think you’d like bathing with a pink sponge.
I highly suggest you try growing Luffa sponges; even those of you in Northern climates with shorter growing seasons. Each morning as I start my day, I am reminded of my commitment to becoming more self-sufficient when I shower using a sponge I grew myself.