How To Care For Versatile Luffa Plants (+ Pick Them For Food & Sponges)
When you think "loofah," your brain might go to that hot pink ball hanging on a hook in your shower. As it turns out, these scrubbers actually come from a gourd that's pretty easy to grow—and completely edible at that. Read on for how to care for and cultivate your own versatile loofahs at home, from gardeners who grow them by the pound.
The luffa plant.
Loofahs, also known as loofas or luffas, are tropical vines in the cucumber family. Two of the most common species are Luffa aegyptiaca from Asia, typically harvested for food, and Luffa acuntangular from Northern Africa, which is usually harvested for its dry sponge.
All luffa is native to hot, tropical locales, so this is a sun-loving plant that will grow best in warmer climates. And grow it will. When a luffa vine is happy in its environment, it can reach 30-plus feet high and produce 50 large gourds (1 to 2 feet tall each), and a plethora of pollinator-friendly yellow flowers, in a single season.
Luffa can take up to 200 days to produce gourds, though, so patience is key with this plant. Once you do see gourds, you can either pick them as ripe fruit or leave to dry on the vine and use them as sponges.
This vigorous vine needs to be planted near a trellis or barrier that is strong enough to support the weight of its abundant harvest.
Frequently Asked Questions
Prefers bright, direct sun
When to water:
Every week, once established
Produces edible fruit & sponges, has pretty yellow flowers, resilient and fun to watch grow
Might overtake nearby plants, hard to grow in colder climates
Where to put them:
In a large sunny spot, away from other vines
Yes, but dried luffa gourds might upset a pet's tummy if they get into them
Vines can grow 20-plus feet tall
How to plant & grow it.
You can snag some luffa seeds from your local nursery or buy them online. With any luck, you'll only need to make the purchase one time since each luffa gourd holds up to 350 seeds of its own.
Since luffas are sun-loving plants, gardeners who live in USDA zones 7 and above will have the most luck with them, explains Sarah Barbosa, a homesteader and luffa seller living in Texas. While she notes that those in colder zones (down to about zone 5) will be able to grow luffa, their plants won't produce as many healthy gourds.
Those in colder climates will also need to start growing their seeds indoors or in a mini greenhouse, around eight to 12 weeks before spring starts in their area. Expect germination to take around 21 days. Once your final frost hits, you can put your germinated luffa in the ground underneath a sturdy trellis or structure that it can climb.
Barbosa learned the hard way that a flimsy trellis will not be able to carry the weight of this vine as it matures. She now uses cattle panels made from super-strong galvanized steel to hold up her expansive luffa garden. Florida-based luffa grower Jeannie Schmidle has also had success setting her luffa up next to an established patch of black bamboo.
"It's a very prolific plant—but you have to have the space," adds Barbosa, who recommends leaving at least a few feet of space on all sides of your luffa patch so it can spread its lush, green vines. Since luffa has a pretty compact root system, you can plant a few of its seeds pretty close together, about a foot apart.
Caring for the plant.
Barbosa and Schmidle say that once your luffa is in the ground, you shouldn't have to do much to keep it happy—especially if you live in a hot climate. Just keep these care tips in mind:
Sunlight & Temperature:
It's nearly impossible to give this plant too much heat and sunlight. "You can grow it on the sun if you really tried. It will take the heat," Barbosa jokes.
"The only downside on the other end is that it will die in frost," she adds, so you really need to wait until all possibility of frost has passed in your area before planting your luffa in a spot in your garden that gets plenty of direct sunlight.
It's also important to note that luffa plants have a long growing season; it can take about 200 days for them to be ready to pick. This is another reason that those in climates that are warm for more of the year will have more success with this plant.
Shmidle notes that luffa plants enjoy moist soil, but they are pretty drought-resistant. Once you first put it in the ground, it tends to need more water, but once its vines really start growing, you can get away with watering it once every week or so.
"Because it's a vigorous vine, it loves to climb—and it can climb really fast," Shmidle says. "You have to give it space."
"Luffa is one of those crops that once it's growing, there is no real rhyme or reason to where it grows," she says, so she and Schmidle both recommend thinking about your first season with it as a trial-and-error period that can give you a sense of this unique crop's needs.
When the plant is ready to be harvested.
Your luffa plant should first start to flower after about 90 days in the ground, and 90 days after that is when the fruit comes into play. So if you plant your luffa in April, you should be ready to harvest in September.
A mature luffa gourd is about 1 to 2 feet in length, and it resembles a large cucumber. At first, these gourds are dark green in color, and as they dry out, they will go from dark green to light green to yellow to dark brown.
If you are growing luffa to eat, you'll want to harvest it during that early dark green stage, while the fruit feels soft to the touch. At this point, it should still be moist enough that it's pleasant to eat. The longer your luffa stays on the vine, the dryer it will become. Those who are growing for loofah sponges should wait until the fruit is totally brown. If your gourd falls off the vine before this point, you can place it out in the sun for a few days until it dries out completely.
Once your loofah is dry, you can remove the bottom tip of it and shake out the treasure trove of seeds stored inside. Then, to get to the fibrous, spongy material, Barbosa recommends soaking your loofah in water for a few minutes, until the tough outer husk easily peels off.
If you notice any slimy sap on your sponge, Schmidle says you can soak it in a mix of 50/50 water and vinegar, give it a good scrub, and leave it out in the sun for another few days until it's clean, dry, and ready to use.
Using the loofah at home.
Loofah sponges are soft on the outside and a bit rougher in the middle, making them a great tool for all sorts of tasks around the house. Here are a few ways that Barbosa and Schmidle use their haul:
- Personal care: Cut your loofah with scissors or a serrated knife to make exfoliating sponges you can use to apply to your face or body wash.
- Cleaning: Use your loofah as a natural sponge to clean floors, dishes, or hard surfaces.
- Crafting: Swap synthetic foam with loofah in art projects, or use the plant material as an alternative to pesky packing peanuts.
- Gardening: Cut out the middle of your loofah and use it as a biodegradable starter for seedlings.
- Farming: Barbosa donates any loofah she isn't able to use to a local pig rescue. Turns out, some farm animals love munching on the fibrous material.
- Decorating: Loofah resembles a sea sponge when dry, and can make for a beautiful nature-inspired home display.
Luffa husk can also be used as a mulch material or soil amendment. And any part of the plant you don't end up using can be tossed in your compost pile.
Eating the luffa.
Once you take your green luffa off the vine, remove the skin with a vegetable peeler and cut into the fruit to expose the white, seeded flesh inside. It will resemble a cucumber but be slightly softer to the touch. Barbosa says the taste is somewhere between a cucumber, zucchini, and okra.
"You can eat it raw like a cucumber, or you can saute it like a zucchini," she notes. "Even eating it, you can enjoy it in a multitude of ways!" Many Asian cultures also incorporate luffa into soups and stews, and Schmidle adds that she's heard it's super tasty pickled.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.