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.