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The luffa has many names, both common and scientific.  It is known as luffa sponge, loofa, loofah, sponge gourd, and many other common names.  Also known as Luffa cylindrica, Luffa aegyptiaca, or aegyptica.  We have been growing and enjoying our natural luffa sponges for many years here in Due Canali Farm.
 
USES FOR LUFFA SPONGES
These natural sponge wonders of the vegetable world have many uses.  They'll make your skin squeaky clean or shine up your dirty dishes.  The luffa fruits are soft and edible when young and can be cooked and eaten like squash or okra.  When mature, the fruits become a tough mass of fiber that makes a great sponge.  The leaves and vines should not be eaten.  When crushed, they produce a noxious smell that seems to repel insects, animals, and even other plants.    

Luffa are most excellent in the bath or shower.  The exfoliating action leaves your skin feeling the cleanest and tightest it could possibly be.  Having someone scrub your back with a luffa sponge is an incredibly pleasurable experience.  Home soap makers can include slices of luffa in their creations to add an extra cleaning boost to their soaps.  A sponge on a handle or rope makes a great back scratcher.  They can be cut into many shapes for scrubbing pads, bath mats, and other craft items.  Cut the sponges lengthwise and remove the core to make sheets of sponge material.    

Luffa sponges are great for washing items like Tupperware®.  We use them for cleaning almost everything, including cars, boats, plastic buckets, and anything that needs scrubbed but can't withstand steel wool.  Non stick cookware is one example.

Most of our sponges end up as gifts for family and friends.  People tend to find them very interesting and useful. 

 
CARE AND MAINTENANCE OF LUFFA SPONGES
Luffa sponges will last a surprisingly long time if they are allowed to dry between uses, usually a few months.  When they stay wet all the time they tend to deteriorate more.

Most commercial sponges are a light color from being bleached.  Natural mature sponges can be any shade of brown to white in color.  If you want to lighten sponges, then soak them in a weak chlorine bleach solution for about an hour or so.  Commercial growers often use a hydrogen peroxide solution.  Bleaching them for too long can significantly weaken the fibers.  Bleached sponges look better for commerce.  They are also cleaner and less likely to contain insects or other organic matter.  Slightly green and/or stained ones can benefit from bleaching.  Most sponges are fine in their natural state, without bleaching.  Exposure to sunlight can also lighten the color some but not as dramatically as bleach. 

 

A LITTLE ABOUT LUFFA VARIETIES

Most garden varieties of luffa are less dense and more flexible than the large white chunks of commercial sponges.  The commercial luffa is bred for size and strength.  Most are also grown in a warm climate and have the benefit of a long growing season.  Harder dense sponge would be better for things that require strength.  A less dense sponge is more flexible and good for making things like luffa soap. The thickness and number of the individual fibers can vary greatly among sponges.  A hard or soft sponge can have thin or thick fibers.  Usually the more fiber the stiffer the sponge.  There are also varieties that are grown primarily for eating and these tend to produce weaker fiber.  Luffa cross pollinate easily so it might be difficult to grow different varieties together.  Whatever characteristics the luffa have, they can be altered somewhat by careful selection of the seeds.  The plants do seem to have a lot of natural variability among different plants grown from the same sponge and even between sponges grown on the same vine.         

We started with a typical garden variety and kept saving our best seeds.  Over time, the quality and quantity of our sponges improved significantly.  We saved seeds from the earliest large sponges with good fiber.  After a few seasons, they were arriving sooner and larger.  Recently we had a sponge that all the seeds fell out of easily so those seeds became part of the genetic mix.  It has been our limited experience that the denser varieties have been harder to grow in our particular climate. 

Luffa can grow arrow straight, slightly curved, or very curved.  Seeds from straight ones tend to grow more straight ones, but a few curved ones usually appear.  The curved ones make good back scratchers in the shower.  When small, the fruits are very flexible and will conform to whatever shape they are against.  This can result in some very unusual shapes.  Sponges can also be much wider on one end, usually the bottom.       

 
GROWING YOUR OWN LUFFA SPONGES
Growing your own sponges is fun and rewarding.  Once they get established, the plants are quite vigorous.  They grow on vines that can reach 30 feet or more in length.  A strong supporting trellis is a must.  Chain link fence works great.  Lattice will also work well.  Luffa will survive in partial shade but tend to produce more in full sun.  In a very hot dry climate they may do better with some shade as they tend to wilt if it gets too dry.  Yearly rainfall here is typically 40 to 50 inches (102-127 cm).  After the roots have developed, our vines don't usually need to be watered.  If the leaves are wilting noticeably, then they may need additional water.      

These plants are tropical in origin, believed to have originated in southern Asia.  They need a long growing season.  Starting the plants indoors may be necessary for cooler climates.  We live around 37 degrees north latitude and the outdoor season is barely long enough to produce mature sponges planted outside from seed.  Starting them indoors and moving them outside after the last frost gives the best chances for success in our area.  Germination rates may be slightly lower for outside plantings.  Putting the seeds in a moist environment before planting helps increase germination rates.  There can be a lot of variability in the time needed for germination.  It could be 3 days or up to 3 weeks!  Typically it is around a week.  The time it takes for luffa growth, flowering, and maturity can vary widely between plants.  It usually requires around 130 days or more, but it could be anywhere from 110 to 180 days. 

The small seedlings grow very slowly while the roots become established.  Once they are about 6 inches tall the increase in growth rate is phenomenal.  After about 3 months of growing, the flower clusters appear.  The flowers bloom in an orderly progression, one at a time.  When the vines are blooming, the bright yellow flowers attract many pollen gathering creatures.  Bumblebees absolutely love them.  Ants enjoy cruising all over the vines.  Some flowers will wilt and fall off while the lucky ones will form a luffa sponge.  The flowers are quite pretty and abundant. 

When the flowers produce, slender cucumber-like vegetables appear.  The vines continue to grow and produce fruit until the sponges begin to mature.  They can be harvested whenever they feel ready.  Typically they turn a yellow/brown color and become lighter in weight from drying out.  Mature luffa sponges can be any color from green to nearly black.  Very small sponges can be mature and very large ones may not be ready.  Size and color doesn't matter much.  The important thing is that they start to dry and lose weight.  Time to maturity varies considerably as our sponges are picked from early September to late November.  Many of our sponges are harvested after a frost occurs and the vines quickly die off.  The more mature they are, the better the sponge fiber quality.  Some smaller ones may mature more quickly, yielding a small soft sponge, good for washing delicate skin.     

 
HARVESTING AND PREPARING LUFFA SPONGES
If the vines die before the sponges are ready for peeling, they can be hung in a dry place to cure before peeling.  If the weather is dry, then cutting the vines to stop the flow of sap and letting the sponges hang may work.  Hanging them in a dry place is the best way to get them dry.  Generally if the sponges are good they will dry enough to peel.  If they are really immature they may rot no matter what you do.  Peeling green luffa is difficult but can be done if needed.  When the sponges are ready for harvest they can be peeled.  If they have matured they are usually easy to get open.  Soaking in water will help the opening process.  After peeling, high water pressure from a hose sprayer can remove much of any remaining green and brown coloration.  Wash them with soap and water, lay out to dry, rotating occasionally, as the water settles in the lower side.  Placing them in sun and wind outside dries them quickly.  The sun tends to lighten them some.

If they are stained, a soak in some bleach and water will lighten them considerably.  A wet harvest season tends to cause more rot and brown spots in the sponges.  An unusually dry fall in one particular year yielded sponges that were very light in color, an almost fluorescent white.  Getting all the seeds out can be a challenge, but the drier the sponges are, the easier the seeds will fall out.  Save the best ones for next year.  You can also cut open the sponges in any shape you want to remove seeds.    

 
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