In an area where corn, cotton and soybeans define a true farmer, my
grandfather was a true eccentric. The rumor goes that he made a bet
with one of his friends that he could grow a sponge of sorts, something
that they could not only eat but that they could also use year round.
The bet was made and my legacy of luffa began.
Luffa (Luffa cylindrical) is grown commercially in China,
Korea, Japan, and Central America and can still be found wild in its
country of origin, India. While in my family luffa was grown as a
source of bragging rights and a novelty for the children, it is today,
becoming more widely cultivated commercially in the Southeast and some
parts of the Deep South. It is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, and is also known as Chinese Okra, dishrag sponge, smooth gourd or loofah.
Luffa is commonly recognized in such stores as Bed Bath &
Beyond, the Garden Emporium, and Pier 1 Imports as an addition to a
beautiful menagerie of bath items. While this is the most common use in
the United States, it is also used as air filters, packing material,
marine steam engine filters, insulation, and stuffing for shoulder pads
as well as mattresses.
No one knows exactly how my grandfather came into our seeds. As far
as anyone knows he never traveled outside of North Carolina and rarely
left our little town. Some think that there is a possibility that one
of my uncles or my father brought back seeds from their journeys
overseas with the Army or possibly that he obtained them from our local
agriculture extension office. There was a time in the late 40's that
the government was trying desperately to find something else that could
be grown in our area. Whatever the truth may be, my whole family is
grateful for not only the seed but also the memories that have come
Growth and Cultivation
Luffa should be grown in an area that has a long growing season or
started indoors; it will take approximately 95-116 days to reach full
maturity. Starting the seeds indoors and then transplanting outside
after the threat of frost has passed will give those that have shorter
growing seasons a good shot at growing these unusual plants.
I have read in several different magazines that luffa seed are very
slow and sporadic to start, I have found otherwise. My family would
always sprout our seeds by wrapping them in moist paper towels for
about 3-4 days and placing them in a warm area with diffused sunlight.
It was the one event that meant spring was coming. Long after my
grandfather was not able to have his huge garden anymore he would still
sprout the luffa seed and give them to our neighbors or to more distant
members of our family. He always said it was habit to do it every year
but I think secretly he continued to do it so that he could watch the
faces of the youngest members of our family as we slowly pulled back
the paper towels to discover the newly sprouted plants.
After the seeds had sprouted, we would then transfer them to a
biodegradable seed pot (such as Jiffy Peat Pots or the do it yourself
newspaper kind) so as to not disturb the root structure when
transplanting. By using this method of seed starting we were able to
maximize our seeds by not having to thin out any. After placing one
sprouted seed per peat pot, we then sprinkled with a potting mixture
just enough to cover the seed and to let the sprout show through. After
2-3 true leaves developed it was time to put them into the ground.
The vertical method of growing these plants is most highly
recommended. There are many ways to establish a vertical garden, but
for us the most economical has always been the following: place 2 poles
approximately 6-8 feet apart, reaching 6 feet tall and then stretching
chicken wire tightly across creating a fence of sorts. Placing a luffa
plant approximately every 10 inches will give it ample space to grow
upward and outward. While the luffa vine is a very hardy climber it
will not initially seek out the trellis, therefore it must be hand
trained initially. Keeping in mind that luffa will reach to
approximately 12 inches long; remove any early setting fruits that may
appear on the bottom of the plant. Luffa tends to be very sensitive to
obstacles, if it were to meet with the ground or another luffa it may
begin to grow in an odd shape or worse begin to rot. Also by
maintaining a smaller amount of luffa per vine (approximately 6-8) it
will also ensure that your fruits will reach their optimum size.
The luffa much like it's cousin the cucumber enjoys a soil pH of
approximately 6.0 - 6.8 with high levels of potassium and phosphorous.
Upon transplanting, a side dressing of fertilizer
may be added and if needed, again during the first signs of flowering
or fruit setting (approximately 6 weeks after the seed sprouted). The
most important aspect of growing luffa is to make sure that it has
proper irrigation. If the plant suffers a drought during its growth the
fruit will appear misshapen and small.
The leaves of a healthy vine have a glorious deep blue green
appearance. The flowers are a vibrant yellow and can stretch to
approximately 5 inches in size with correct growing conditions. The
flowers are formed male and female separately and are open for
pollination only 1 day. The serious luffa grower can benefit by placing
a beehive within a close proximity of the crop to assist in
The fruit itself will be a deep green reaching to approximately 12