Loofa – The Edible Vegetable Sponge

loofa or luffa

Picture by hemiaock – Pixabay

Many people have heard of loofa “sponges”, though they are not sponges. A sponge is a sea animal and a loofa is a plant of the cucurbit family. Still, the dried fruit of the loofa, dried and with the seeds and skin removed, is commonly used as a bath sponge, just like real sponges are, though loofa is coarser and is used primarily for scrubbing. What does tend to surprise a number of people is that the young loofa fruit is also edible.

Loofa is also known as luffa or loofah and Luffa is the name of the genus. As mentioned, this is a cucurbit, which means that it is related to squashes, pumpkins, watermelons, cucumbers and gourds. In fact, loofa is considered to be a kind of gourd.

This fruit is commonly eaten in China and throughout tropical Asia and India. In the Philippines, loofa is called patola and in India, it is called sebot. However, once the fruit begins to mature, the fibers form, so only the young fruits are usually eaten; normally when they are four to six inches in length.

Once the fruit has matured, it is dried and the seeds, dried flesh and skin are removed. The fibers can then be used as a sponge or scrub.

The plant grows as a vine and the leaves are similar to those of pumpkins and squashes. It also has the same general requirements for healthy growth as pumpkins and squash. However, it is different, too.

First of all, loofa vines often grow over 20 feet long and have been known to grow up to 30 feet. By comparison, pumpkin vines seldom reach 15 feet in length.

Additionally, while most cucurbits are heat loving plants and can’t survive frosts, loofa is even more so. The seeds won’t even germinate and the plants won’t grow if the soil temperature is below 55-60 F (above 20 C). Even if the temperatures are high and the plants get plenty of sunshine, they require a long growing season to produce fruit large enough and mature enough to turn into scouring sponges. This is usually on the order of 150-200 days. If there are periods of time during the growing season when the temperatures fall below 70 F, the plants normally slow down in growth.

As there aren’t many places in the US that have sustained temperatures of 70 F or above for five or six months, these plants may be difficult for Americans to grow long enough to be able to harvest sponge-sized fruit. All of this said, it doesn’t take nearly this long to grow and harvest loofa fruits that are big enough to eat.

For eating, the fruits are sometimes chopped and added to salads like a green vegetable. It is also eaten in stir fries, soups, stews and as a curried vegetable. It can be steamed and served with hot steamed rice. In other words, it is almost as versatile as squash and more so than cucumbers. Most loofa is eaten in Asian countries and India, when it isn’t grown for the coarse, fibrous sponge.

This is an interesting plant from the aspect of it being usual to grow for most Americans. The scouring sponge is undoubtedly useful, but as a food plant, it is even more useful. It also isn’t particularly unknown in most of the world, either.


    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      It does happen and I want to grow some here in Montana, just to see how well they do. Our official growing season isn’t nearly long enough, but there are sometimes ways to squeeze out a little more growing time. 🙂 I should say that it wouldn’t have worked this year, because our growing season was way late in even starting.

  1. Eva James

    I may have to put plastic around these later this year to keep them going a little longer. Just waiting to see, we still have mostly warm weather yet. You could always fully grow them inside under lights on a trellis.

    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      It is kind of surprising what we can grow here, despite being this far north and in the Rocky Mountains. 🙂

    2. Rex Trulove Post author

      I could in a normal year, but I’d cheat. First, I’d start the seeds indoors a month before growing season and use full spectrum lights on the seedlings. Then when I planted them, I’d use black plastic bags to lay around the plants, to keep the soil hot and to retain moisture. Late in the year, the plant can be protected with a make shift portable row cover. The result is that the growing season is extended by about two to two and a half months. It is a lot of effort, though.

  2. Andria Perry

    I used to grow them years ago, I think I still have one, may even have some seeds somewhere. I used them for baths.

    I shared this article on StumbleUpon

    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      I definitely want to try it here. If nothing else, I’d at least like to grow them to eat. I don’t need a long growing season for that.

  3. Kyla Matton Osborne

    I wish I had known the growing season was so long when I tried to plant them, years ago! I got the seeds from Richters and was really eager to plant them, as nobody else seemed to be offering them at the time. But they never germinated and would not have made it to the sponge stage. The growing season in Montreal is too short for loofah.

    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      You probably could grow them to the eating stage, though. Incidentally, for them to germinate, the soil temperature must consistently be 70 F / 21 C or above. The most common cause of the seeds failing to germinate is that the soil isn’t warm enough.

    2. Kyla Matton Osborne

      I don’t think it was soil temp. I’m pretty sure the temps were high enough that year. And the seeds were fresh too. Not sure what kept the loofah from germinating.

    3. Rex Trulove Post author

      That is strange, indeed. But then, there have been times when I’ve planted something that refused to grow, without any good reason. Other times, I’ve had something grow that really shouldn’t have. Last year, I planted two eggplant seedlings far to early. We got a hard frost and the eggplants shriveled to the ground level. I ended up planting several more eggplants in a different location in the garden, a few weeks later. It was only about two weeks after that when I noticed that the two ‘dead’ eggplants were putting out leaves. The ended up out producing an of the other eggplants, which had been planted when they should have been. Apparently the roots of the two were still alive, but eggplant is so sensitive to cold that they really should have died. I’m not complaining.

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