Most people are surprised when they first learn that those scrubby natural sponges sold at bath and specialty shops don’t come from the sea. In fact, they are an easy to grow vegetable and they come from a vine.
A truly renewable natural resource, these sponges are the perfect solution for “green” cleaning. Unlike cellulose sponges, luffa is recyclable and compostable. In the bath they exfoliate and restore circulation to your skin. In the kitchen they clean dishes and pots with a mildly abrasive surface. Larger ones can be used to wash your car. Smaller, softer ones can be used as a face scrub. They last as long as commercial sponges and can be washed with lemon juice and sun-bleached to keep them fresh. What’s more, if you live in Florida, you can grow all you want right in your own yard.
The luffa sponge (or loofah) is a relative of the cucumber and its leaves are similar in appearance. The luffa fruits are edible when they are very small, but develop a tough fibrous interior as they mature. Once established, the vine will cover a wall, fence, or archway with dark leafy foliage and bright yellow flowers. The flowers attract hundreds of beneficial pollinators such as butterflies, moths, and bumblebees so plant them anywhere you want to look at beautiful buzzing summer insects.
Luffas aren’t picky and will grow just fine in the ground or in a container. They do need something to climb up, but a fence or even a rough wall will do. Unlike other squashes, the luffa vine is virtually pest and disease free and is not troubled by the powdery mildews that plague other squashes. They do best in bright, full sun, need lots of water, and require 140 frost free days. For Florida gardeners, that means planting anywhere from June to September. The humidity and summer rains are exactly what this plant needs. The seeds are inexpensive and easily obtainable, making it a simple project to cover a whole wall or fence. Weeding should be done when the seedlings are small, but once they are established the vine will crowd out weeds on its own. As with other low maintenance plants, once you get this plant going, it will take off and do the rest of the work without you.
You can harvest your bath sponges when the fruits get large and begin to feel fibrous or hollow. You can leave them on the vine to dry if the weather permits, but in heavy summer rains, it might be best to let them dry out in a sheltered area to prevent rot. Once the skin has dried, you peel it off like a banana and you will see the sponge inside. Squeeze the seeds out over a bowl or other container and save them to plant next season or feed them to your chickens. Rinse your sponge under running water until it is clean and let it dry. It is then ready to use or to give as a gift.
If you already make your own soaps or cleaning supplies, why not grow a fence full of luffas next year to go with them? Your friends will be amazed you grew them yourself and you will be amazed how easy it was.