July 18, 2020

You Can Grow Loofah?

Loofah flowers, fruit & leaves
Many people use a loofah sponge to exfoliate their skin. When I ask folks what a loofah is and where it comes from, I invariably hear something along the lines of “It's a spongy thing that lives in the ocean.” I harbored the same misconception, until I learned that I could grow it in my bathtub. Just kidding! Loofahs are a member of the cucurbit (cucumber) family. They have been cultivated for thousands of years in tropical and subtropical areas around the world. In many regions, the mature fruits come in handy as sponges, dishcloths, hat padding, filters, healing extracts, and even mattresses. Often unnoticed amid loofah's intriguing repertoire of uses is the fact that you can eat it.

What does loofah taste like? Before I answer, keep in mind that you have to pick them young, before the fruit starts creating all the fiber that eventually makes it spongy. Also, keep in mind that I have only tasted the variety that I grow. I grow a smooth skinned variety (scientific name is probably Luffa aegyptiaca). There are ridged varieties that reputedly taste a bit sweeter. When young, the smooth skinned loofah looks something like a zucchini and can be used in the same manner. Its skin is crisper and more noticeable. As it ages, the skin gets bitter and thickens, as, sad to say, some people do. Under the skin, the flesh is mild tasting. It is somewhat soft and pliant. I would call it squeezable, also like a good number of people. 

Loofah look like zucchini and are used in the same way
Loofah fruits grow quickly once they get started. How I prepare it depends on how mature it is when I pick it. If it is fairly short and the skin is thin, I like to cut it up and add it to a salad. Some people juice it, but I have never tried this. If picked a few days later and the skin has thickened significantly, I might prefer to chop it up and cook it in a soup or stir fry. A few days later, as it gets fatter, I would want to make sure it is well cooked, so that the skin and any fiber that might have started thickening softens up. If I find that the fibers are making it difficult to cut the loofah, it might be ready for composting. These guidelines are meant to be fluid enough that you can swim around with them and frolic a bit.

A slightly overcooked loofah pancake,
just the way my sweetheart likes them.

I hadn't really found my loofah niche, until I heard about savory loofah pancakes. Thank you, Peter B! The savory pancake is one cooking genre in which loofah shines. I chop the loofah into moderately small pieces and cook them until the skin is soft. That generally means I put them in a glass bowl and pop it in the microwave for a couple of minutes. I use a fork to mash them up a bit with some spices and salt. At this point, I have created a liquid mess. I add an egg and some variant on flour. I say variant on flour, because sometimes I add what's left at the end of a bag of corn chips. I crush the chip bits up so there are no big pieces, just crumbs. Flour is nice too, as it makes the resulting pancake a bit smoother. As far as the egg goes, I'm not a big fan of eggs, so I just add one, even for a big batch. I add enough flour and crumbs to make a thick pancake batter, almost a paste. I heat some oil in a frying pan, scoop a large spoonful of batter into the pan, flatten it into a pancake, flip when firmed up, and serve when nicely browned. I serve them with salsa or yogurt or whatever I fancy. The resulting pancakes have a bounce to them, and the bounce is from the loofah. 

Frozen loofah is great 
in loofah pancakes
I have found loofah a bit too easy to grow. It needs 4-6 months of solid warm weather to produce mature fruit. It prefers lots of sun, hot temperatures, adequate water, and well-drained soil. I have most of that in spades, and loofah vines grow vigorously. I read that it needed a trellis of some sort, so I first planted it next to a flexible bamboo fence that would provide spaces for tendrils to latch on to. Even without irrigation it flourished. The lush foliage tended to hide the young fruit, so I was always playing hide-and-seek, trying to find the fruit, before they had passed the edible stage. 

How do you know whether the loofah you are about to pick is a food or a sponge? At the edible stage, the loofah fruits are slender and heavy for their size. As the loofah fattens up a bit, fiber is thickening inside. Although it looks bigger, it feels lighter in weight. Once it starts to bulge a bit at the seams, it has too much fiber in it for me to eat; however, it is still not fibrous enough to make a good sponge. At this point, it is a waiting game. The loofah will continue to grow larger. Then the green skin will start to dry out and eventually turn brown and/or black. The longer you wait, the drier the skin. The drier the skin, the easier it is to peel, but the more likely it is to discolor. Consider this another one of life's minor tradeoffs.

Partially peeled dried loofah sponge.
I went out of town for a few weeks toward the end of my first summer growing a loofah plant. It must have rained nicely while I was gone. Upon my return, the lofty loofah vine was growing over one tree to get to another, hiking over the property boundary, and hightailing it up into my neighbor's tall trees. It was growing twenty or thirty feet in many directions. By the fall, I was trimming the loofah once a week so that it did not cover all the plants in its vicinity. Mowing a grass lawn once a week was starting to sound idyllic. Thankfully, winter came soon enough, and the hardy loofah died back, unveiling its abundant crop of sponges, awaiting peeling and de-seeding. I had fun peeling the first few, removing the goo, and flinging the seeds in all directions. I let the sponges bleach in the pool. It got a bit tedious after that. Just how many sponges does one family need? That is a reasonable question to ask before growing a loofah plant. 

How many sponges does one family need?

The next year, although many loofah plants germinated, I only let one loofah grow back. This time I would be more proactive. I resolved to keep the vine small, so that minimal trimming would be required. Alas, the plant got away from me once again. I also found that I couldn't keep up with eating all the fruit. I started freezing loofah, but stopped, when I realized that it would probably take me years to eat it all. I changed course, let the fruit mature on the vine, and invited friends over to pick, peel, and de-seed their own loofah sponges. That was a big hit. Even so, at the end of the year, I decided that I did not want another crop of loofah the next year. 
 

Volunteer loofah vine growing out of a mound of wood chips
I cut all the loofah vines back down to the dirt and thought about it no more. Until the following spring. About forty feet away from the loofah plant stood a raised mound, the remains of an oversized load of wood chips. The wood chips had not decomposed and there was no irrigation. Unperturbed by the unwatered wood chips, up popped a loofah plant, vibrant with new spring aspirations. It produced a crop of large, beautiful yellow flowers. We had a dry spell and the plant died. Within a couple of weeks, three more plants popped up in the same area. I let one grow and it produced more glorious flowers. I didn't have the heart to rip it out. This time I really did keep the plant under control with a minor amount of effort. Even so, at the end of the summer, I decided I wanted to grow a ridged loofah plant that might be tastier. I pulled the whole, huge loofah plant up by its roots, which was relatively easy, as it had grown in a pile of wood chips. 

Loofah seedling
Not long afterwards, as I was puttering around outside, I looked upward toward a tall palm tree growing at the back of the property. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. I saw loofahs hanging down from the top of the palm, like Christmas ornaments. We are talking 25 feet up in the air, dangling without a care in the world. I traced the vines back to the ground where I had planted the very first loofah plant. All of the leaves wound around the top portion of the palm tree, so I hadn't noticed them. Pachamama was having some fun with me and those loofahs. At first, I decided to leave them there thinking they would bring a smile to my face, every time I looked their way. But over the course of a few weeks, I realized that those loofahs would probably release many seeds, and those seeds would probably germinate. It would be best to take them down. It also dawned on me that I had unwittingly spread loofah seeds all over the yard. Every time I peeled a loofah to make a sponge out of it, I had launched its seeds every which way as I removed them from the sponge-to-be. These seeds had been happily germinating wherever they landed. It was possible that I would be pulling up loofah seedlings for many years to come. 

To be honest, I consider the Loofah Incident, as I like to call it, to be entirely entertaining and educational. Every year, as I pull a few loofah seedlings out of the ground, a sense of amusement overtakes me. I have no regrets, but I do look forward to growing a tastier variety.

For my friends in colder regions: Loofahs like it hot. Do what is necessary to prolong the season. For example, you can start a loofah plant indoors before it warms up enough to plant it outside. On the bright side, it is unlikely that you will have to worry about runaway growth.

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