By Talia Tinari

During last Spring’s planting season, I took my sturdy blue tomato cages, duct taped together the points that normally go into the soil, and turned them over to make tee-pee trellises for beans to climb. I carefully planted the little white cannellini beans around the top circle of each tomato cage, which were now against the soil. These were the last cannellini beans I had from the previous year, so I didn’t expect all of the beans to germinate, but I knew that the ones that did germinate would likely produce plentiful pods. I watered diligently, watching as the new sprouts began to emerge from the soil. In a few days, their primary leaves unfurled and flattened out to absorb the sun, but the seedlings seemed to have shifted ever so slightly from where I originally planted them. “Darn birds”, I thought, as I went about transplanting the delicate little seedlings where I had wanted them, so that they could grow up the tomato cage trellis.

In another few days, the secondary leaves revealed themselves, dark green, pointy and not what I was expecting since the leaves of a cannellini bean are light green and rounded. A garden neighbor saw me kneeling down, staring at my new seedlings. Standing over me, she opined, “They look like cucumbers!”

“No, I planted cannellini beans!”, I told her.

Then it occurred to me that I had a single luffa vine in the same place the previous year. It had apparently self-seeded in remarkably close proximity to where I had planted the cannellini beans! There are few gifts of gardening that are more surprising, wonderful and frustrating to a gardener than “volunteers”. In gardening lingo, a volunteer is a plant that has planted itself, either by the wind or a bird or by being mixed into compost. In this case, the luffa gourd is the gift that keeps on giving.

The luffa (also spelled loofah) sponge gourd, luffa aegyptiaca, is a vine native to Southeast Asia, and is a member of the cucumber (Cucurbitaceae) family of gourd plants. It has bright yellow flowers that attract bees. Once pollinated, immature gourds, less than 7 inches in length, may be harvested and eaten. A quick Google search reveals that the best way to prepare them is to peel, cut on the bias into small pieces and sauté with garlic and olive oil. The gourds are considered a suitable substitute for squash in a vegetable stir-fry.

More commonly, the gourds are used for scrubbing. The gourds must be grown to full maturity and left on the vine to dry. The gourds are fully grown at about 8 to 12 inches long and will go from a dark green cucumber-like color to pale green, then yellow and finally, brown. Once brown and dry, they can be cut from the vine and the brown outer layer peeled away to expose the fibrous cellular structure of the gourd. To prepare them for use as a body sponge or as a scrubber for household or kitchen tasks, the seeds need to be shaken from the gourd. The mature seeds will be black. These can be saved for replanting or discarded. The immature seeds will be white and can be composted. Once most of the seeds have fallen out of the gourd, the gourds need to be sterilized using bleach. I use a solution of one-part bleach to two-parts water, fill a basin with it and two or three gourds at a time, letting them soak overnight or for up to twenty-four hours. The gourds will be lighter in color and should be free from any mold or discoloration. I then rinse the gourds thoroughly and soak in cold water for another twenty-four hours. If an odor of bleach remains after the second soaking, the luffa should be rinsed and soaked in water again.

Luffa seeds can be planted directly in the ground or in a large, deep container or pot. In either place, they must have a trellis or something to climb. They need direct sun—at least 6 hours a day—and well-drained soil. If grown in a container, good organic potting soil is sufficient. It can take several months, up to eight or nine, for all of the gourds to mature and dry on the vine. My vines still have one, gorgeous, dark green gourd and nine gourds on their way to drying. The same neighbor who noticed the seedlings walked by recently and said, “Wow! You ended up with lots of luffa! You have to be careful though, they’re almost invasive!”

Join us at the Main Street Community Garden for our Second Saturday Breakfast on January 11 from 9-11 a.m. We’ll be giving away free luffa sponges and seeds while supplies last!

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1 Comment

  1. Loofah. Fun to grow. Fun to give. Fun to say. Thank you for brightening the day with this tidbit of the good life in Santa Monica.

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