A plant that isn’t often grown in US gardens, but which probably should be, is the luffa. The plant name is sometimes spelled ‘loofah’ and it is commonly called the vegetable sponge. Luffa is actually a curcurbit, which means that it is in the same family as cucumbers, squashes, gourds and pumpkins. There are several species of luffa and Luffa is actually the genus name.
This is the plant commonly called patola in the Philippines, sabot in India and estropajo in Spanish speaking countries.
The plant has been used and eaten for hundreds of years. When the fully ripe fruit are allowed to dry on the vine or by hanging them up in a hot, dry, shady place, the skin becomes brittle and falls away. This leaves the fibrous interior, which can be used as a dish sponge, after the seeds are shaken out. The leaves look distinctly like those of cucumbers.
If the fruit is harvested when it is still green and four or five inches long, it can be used in the same way that cucumbers or squashes can be used. It is especially good in stir fry or in soups and stews.
The plant is grown in the same way that squashes and cucumbers are grown. To start it from seed, soak the seeds in water for two days, then put them in small pots that are filled with a quality growing medium, about an inch deep.
Keep the soil moist but not wet. Germination usually happens in 10-14 days. The plants can be put into the garden when they get their second set of leaves, if the soil is warm and danger of frost is past.
Plant two to four plants per hill, with the hills six or eight feet apart. For best results, luffa should have supports to grow up, such as a trellis or stout fence. This plant will often cover a fence that is up to six feet high, so tall supports are better than short ones, especially for harvesting.
Side dressing with finished compost and growing them in rich soil usually increases the number of fruits the plant produces. Watering is also as with cucumbers; one or two inches of water once or twice per week.
Luffa is fast growing and has the same climbing habit that most cucumbers have. Like most of the curcubits, luffa is a warm weather crop and doesn’t tolerate frost well. In fact, this is considered to be a tropical and sub-tropical plant. It produces fruits throughout the growing season, provided that it gets sufficient water and is grown in rich soil.
As a vegetable, harvest the fruits when they are four to six inches long. For sponges, let the fruits get larger and either allow them to dry on the vine or remove them and dry them. Once dry, soak them in water for a day or two to soften the skin, then peel it off. Wash what is left under running water to remove the seeds. Alternately, they can be dried and the large end can be broken and the skin can be peeled off. Shake out the seeds and then finish peeling the fruit.
Note that the fruit of luffa can grow nearly as long as those of zucchinis, if they are allowed to continue to grow. A total length of two feet isn’t uncommon.
Luffa will grow here in Montana, so there is little reason they won’t grow throughout most of the US. They are also commonly grown in China, the Philippines, India, throughout the middle east, in Europe and in Russia. As a vegetable, they haven’t truly caught on in the US like they have throughout most of the rest of the world, but they are healthy and delicious.
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Posted in food and plants and tagged cucumber family, curcurbit, gardening, gourd family, loofa, luffa, vegetable sponge by rextrulove with 4 comments.