Growing Luffa Cylindrica: It's More Than Just a Sponge

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Jessy Rushing is a Texas gardener who fell in love with herbs after tripping into a rosemary shrub one day. The scent on her clothes cheered her up all afternoon. Her curiosity was aroused and since then her herb gardening has been part investigation, part experimentation and most importantly, part delight.

Until this year I thought loofahs were a sea sponge. Wrong! While visiting California we came across The Luffa Farm in Nipomo, California and took a tour. What an eye opener!

Luffas (also spelled loofah or loofa) are part of the Cucurbitaceae family, along with cucumbers, squash, pumpkins and other gourds. Luffa cylindrica is native to India and grown commercially in China, Korea, Japan and Central America. It’s been called dishcloth gourd, vegetable sponge or Chinese okra. In fact, when the luffa is less than 7 inches long, it’s actually edible–slice it up in salads or cook it like squash or okra. I was intrigued; I had to learn more–first hand. What gardener can resist the chance to grow something new?

I designated a section of the back fence for my luffas and sallied forth to plant ten seedlings. Luckily, only three came up. Luffa vines are energetic growers, to say the least. I strung three wires between the fence posts to give the tendrils something to latch onto. And latch they did–sending shoots out that speedily covered the 8-feet section of fence.

Luffas require a long, warm growing season. I planted mine in April and, although the vines grew quickly, they were slower to flower than I expected. I think part of the problem was the breeze here in north Texas. We’re not far from Oklahoma, “where the wind comes sweeping down the plain.” Many of the earlier blossoms were blown off before they could open, but when it did flower, the blooms were gorgeous yellow blossoms the size of my fist. The bees were very appreciative and I spent many Saturday mornings on the patio with a fresh cup of coffee watching the bees stagger drunkenly from flower to flower.

Luffa vines are energetic growers.
Photo by Jessy Rushing

Luffas will dry on the vine, but if you’re impatient like me, cut them from the vine when they’re about 2 feet long. As they dry, they’ll turn from dark green to brown, and become lighter in weight. After about two weeks, remove the tough outer skin. Either soak them for a day to help loosen the skin, or shatter the dry, crispy skin and peel it off the luffa in sections. (Guess which one I like to do!). Cut off one end and shake out the seeds. These can be dried for next year, but be prepared–each luffa has A LOT of seeds! Unless you’re going into the luffa business, line up some friends that would like some seeds. If the color of the newly peeled luffa is a little dark, soak it with a 10 percent bleach solution for 10 to 15 minutes, rinse well and let it dry in the sun.

Top: Luffa growing on the vine. Bottom: Dried and peeled luffas.
Photos by Norman Rushing

My luffa experiment succeeded in part to the long growing season we have. Farther north, the plants will grow to full size but won’t dry on the vine before the first frost. In Zones colder than 6, start the seeds inside a few weeks before your planting time.

However you grow and use them, luffa is a multitasking plant and a guaranteed garden conversation starter. Umm, would anyone like some seeds?

“There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments”–Janet Kilburn Phillips

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