Right now, I am growing bath sponges. Really, I am truly growing bath sponges in my garden. While this statement makes perfect sense to many of my gardening friends, lots of the non-gardening people that I tell this to, or show the plants to, are truly surprised to learn that the $10 natural bath sponges that they use to scrub their bodies are the xylem fibers of a dead gourd that they can easily grow in their own yard (and you can too).
Luffas, or loofahs, are members of the same family as squash, cucumbers and gourds. The luffa is the fruit of one of two plants – L. aegyptiaca and L. acutangula. Luffas are truly amazing plants. You can eat them, cleanse your body with them and, thanks to a dedicated and visionary woman named Else Zaldivar, you can build your house out of them.
Elsa Zaldivar was looking for an alternate crop that could be grown to bring in much needed income for the indigenous people of Paraguay. One day, while sitting under the shade of an arbor covered in luffa, she had an epiphany. Luffas were the plant! She encouraged the women of the area to grow these natural bath sponges for export. Today, the women have a thriving business that produces bath sponges, mats, slippers, insoles and other beauty products.
While the beauty business was incredibly successful, she was bothered by the amount of waste that was involved in the process. One third of the luffas were not good enough to be sold and the process of preparing the luffas for sale resulted in a 30% loss of fiber. In order to find another revenue stream for the people of Paraguay she teamed up with an industrial engineer named Pedro Palas to find a way to turn this waste into another saleable product.
Thanks to their efforts, you can now build your house out of sheets of recycled plastic that are reinforced with the fibrous waste that comes from the process of turning luffas into beauty products. The product Ms. Zaldivar and Mr. Palas have created is an eco-friendly substitute for plywood. With the addition of colors to the recycled plastic/luffa mixture you can now clad your house in a renewable, recycled product that never needs painting. Click here to read more about Ms. Zaldivar (the queen of the luffa as she calls herself) and the amazing things she is doing with this humble plant.
While it is nice to know we can use to luffas to build a house, Sally and I grow them for the shear fun of it. Luffas are big leafed, unruly, vining plants that are covered in large yellow flowers that have “crinkly” yellow petals. These flowers always bring in tons of pollinators (this year they have been covered in bumble bees). Once the flowers are pollenated small, green, pencil shaped fruits begin to develop. These fruits grow quickly and get big. In fact, they grow fast enough that my wife and I can notice the changes in both the fruit and vines on our daily trips to the garden.
Luffas are incredibly easy to grow. All you need is a sunny spot with decent soil and some type of structure for them to grow on – and a lot of frost free time! Luffas take 150 to 180 frost free days to go from seed bath sponge. I planted my luffas the first week of April. While I got lots of flowers, I did not get my first fruits until the end of July. Now the vines have several fruits that range in size for 18 to 24 inches.
I have grown BIG luffas and I have grown some that were not so big. If you want to grow the biggest bath sponges possible (and get the most fruit possible off the vine) you need to make sure they get plenty of food, plenty of water and a regular trimming. This year we are growing ours on a fence by our compost pile. Since the soil is well worked with organic material and we water almost every day, this year’s luffas are the biggest we have ever grown. We do not trim ours vines. However, if you clip the ends off of your vines they will branch, get bushy and produce up to 25 fruits per plant.
Luffas will continue to grow and set fruit up until the first frost. However, their growth will slow as temperatures fall. I stop watering them around the first of September to encourage their demise. We leave our luffas on the vine until the vines are dead and the thin green skins of the fruits have turned brown and brittle. However, you can harvest your luffa whenever they begin to feel noticeably lighter. Many people like to harvest them green and then bring them in to cure over the winter.
To get your bath sponge you are going to need to remove the skin. If the fruit is really dry, you may be able to remove the skins by simply pulling it off. However, I have much more luck soaking the luffa in warm water in the sink for 30 minutes or so before I start trying to remove the skin. If you “skin” your luffas when they are still slightly green (but definitely turning brown), you can soak them over night and then peel them like a banana.
As you remove the skins, the black seeds will fall out of the end of the luffa that was attached to the vine. Since I soak my luffas the seeds are always wet when they come out. This has not been a problem. I simply gather them up and lay them out on paper towels to dry. After a couple of days I gather them up and store them in a seed packs that we make from old magazines.
Once you remove the skins and dry the fruit your luffas are ready to use. When the “sponge” comes out of the skin it is a lovely, “burlap-y” color. While they are lovely in their natural state, I like to bleach them. If you want your luffas to be a lovely off white color, place four gallons of water and 1 cup of bleach in a five gallon bucket. I bleach my luffas over three days. Each day I remake my bleach solution and let the luffas stay in the mixture for about an hour each day.
My wife and I give most of our luffa bath sponges as Christmas presents. We cut them into 9 inch to 12 inch pieces and tie a bow around them with a with a pack of seeds that came out of them. These are always big hits. People love getting homemade things for Christmas. While people enjoy our preserves and homemade wine they LOVE our luffas! We literally have people ask us if the can get on the Christmas luffa list.
I share these posts on Our SimpleHomestead Blog Hop. Be sure to stop by. The “hop” has tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!