Grow Your Own Loofah
This multifunctional sponge can be grown in your own garden.
By Lori A. Johnson
If you thought your favorite bath accoutrement, the loofah (aka, luffa), originated from the sea like other natural sponges do, you might be surprised to find it’s a terrestrial gourdlike genus of the cucumber family that you can grow right in your own backyard. It also happens to be a traditional Asian vegetable with roots in the culinary history of southern Arizona.
When Chinese railroad workers arrived here in the late 19th century, they brought with them a variety of produce seeds, including loofah. Dena Cowan, garden supervisor and curator of the Mission Garden in Tucson, notes, “Chinese gardeners have traditionally grown loofah, which is why we include it in our living agricultural museum.”
In recognition of their contributions to the rich multicultural food heritage of southern Arizona, Mission Garden planted a Chinese plot among their “timeline gardens,” each of which is dedicated to the various cultures that farmed the region from prehistoric days through the modern era.
According to Cowan, loofah seeds may be difficult to find locally, but you only need a few to begin growing your own plants. You
can order from online seed companies or ask your local nursery about resources. After the first harvest, you’ll reap plenty of seeds for the following year.
“Loofah is easy to grow as long as you have good soil and adequate irrigation,” Cowan says. Plant your loofah seeds in the spring in full sun under a sturdy trellis for support as you would other summer squash, and by late summer or early fall you’re ready to harvest the young, green fruits for culinary use—or leave them to dry on the vine to make into sponges. Given its long growing season of 150-200 warm days, loofah is well-suited to the low desert, but in higher elevations, you may need to start your seeds indoors and grow the plants in pots until any frost danger has passed and the weather is warm enough to transplant outdoors.
It’s only natural that nutrient-rich loofah is ideal for use in traditional Chinese recipes, given its Asian origins. “The ribs of immature fruit should be peeled off, and then the loofah can be sliced and stir-fried, or used in any number of dishes, much like a zucchini,” says Cowan. The smaller the fruit, the more tender its flesh. Loofah flowers can also be eaten, as you would squash blossoms.
To make scrubbing sponges from loofah, allow the fruit to ripen and dry on the vine, and do not harvest until they’re shriveled and brown. Soak the dried loofahs in water to soften the skin, then peel the skin off completely. Shake out the seeds and save them for planting next spring, then cut the remaining sponge into any shape or size, depending on intended use. You may want to soak them in a bleach-water mixture to remove any discoloration, and make sure to allow them to dry thoroughly between uses to prevent bacteria buildup. With their complex fibrous webbing, loofahs are not only good for exfoliating the skin in the bath, but they also make effective non-scratch scouring sponges for pots and pans. In fact, with so many uses for loofahs around the house, why not grow your own for an unlimited supply? Beachfront property not required.