Loofahs are vegan alternatives to natural sponges. Looking at the long, quirky, mesh-y loofah, it may be hard to imagine that it came from anywhere but an animal or a factory. Loofahs are actually the internal structure of fibers that develop in a particular type of gourd, and as such, are the most natural, easily available option for anyone who likes a good scrub down in the shower or while doing dishes.
Growing the loofah gourd can immediately satisfy lots of a gardener’s needs: the beautiful, long-blooming flowers and fast-winding vines make it a beautiful trellis plant, and much of it is edible, with leaves, flowers, and young gourds all perfectly safe to consume. The mature gourds can be collected, prepared properly, and yield a nice harvest of loofahs.
The nice thing about living in Oxford, Ohio is that we are below the Mason-Dixie line. The climate is just warm enough for us to be able to directly sow the seeds of the loofah, which can be bought at Rural King in Hamilton or online. Those living in colder climates need to start the seeds indoors before the last frost.
The loofah gourd likes a lot of sun, and it needs something to wind about—not giving it a trellis or fence will put a lot of this plant’s beauty to waste. The loofah plant likes a bit of compost in its soil, and while you shouldn’t let the soil get dry, this plant will suffer if overwatered. Pruning is important here—when you get the first flush of beautiful yellow flowers, nip them all to increase the yield of gourds. Any blemished fruit, too, should be cut off. You can eat the flowers, like any squash flowers, and it’s popular to fry them in batter, stuff them, and so on. The leaves can be steamed and eaten as well.
If you want to eat the fruit, pick gourds 4 inches or smaller, otherwise they start to get too fibrous. Some Asian markets and international groceries sell larger loofah gourds—they often need peeling, which is a bit tedious at that point in their development, but the squash is very tasty and soaks up any cooking spices and sauces you use. Chinese Okra is a variety of loofah squash often sold in groceries, although its seeds are not the most readily available.
The loofah has a long growing season. You’ll know it’s ready to go into your tub when the big gourds start to turn a yellow or brown color. At that point, you peel off the skin (it should come off relatively easily), and wash the sponge thoroughly. The loofah has been seeds inside, which can be shaken out of the dried gourd. The loofah naturally is a tan shade, but if you want it to be white, soak it in water with a little bit of bleach. You can slice the loofah into many small sponges and expose the large inner hones. It’s a very pretty plant, on the vine and in the house. Consider growing your own!
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