The tropical gourd Luffa cylindrica is edible when very young, but most widely grown for its use in the cosmetic industry. Frequently processed and sold as facial scrubbers and exfoliating fibers in soap, when fully mature this gourd has an interior core made of tough fibers.
If you are in a warm climate like north Alabama and parts farther south, growing Luffa sp. gourds to make your own homemade scrubbers is possible. In addition to scrubbing skin, I like to use the more homely gourds and ends and pieces for scrubbing cast iron cookware. It won’t scratch off the seasoning but does get them clean. It also works well on dishes of any type, and won’t harm surfaces.
While growing, the vine produces a plethora of bright yellow blooms that are highly attractive to bees and even hummingbirds, and it blooms in late summer when most garden plants have stopped. In my garden, bumblebees find these blooms irresistible and, apparently, somewhat intoxicating. I have yet to discover any pests that bother Luffa.
Luffa gourds produce long, tough vines that happily climb anything. Ideally, luffa should be grown on a tall arbor so the fruit can hang down freely. This produces long, straight mature fruit largely free of mold and rot and will produce the best quality final product. If you don’t have tall arbor, a sturdy fence will do. Periodically pull young fruit away from the fence so that they don’t begin to grown through the fence and become distorted.
If all else fails, you can certainly grow the vines trailing along the ground. Be prepared for them to sprawl widely, and to accept significant losses from rot and even foraging chipmunks, who like the seeds.
The plant needs a long, hot summer to produce the best crop. Summer 2015 was an unusually cool summer, and production was down. Many fruit simply did not achieve full ripeness before frost. This is one of the downsides of its tropical origin.
Harvesting & Processing
Immediately after first frost, it’s time to pick your gourds. Fully ripe gourds will be lighter than they appear. Toss the gourds on the ground. Ripe gourds will have their skin crack open, unripe gourds will splat and split apart wetly. Pull the skin off the ripe gourds and leave it in the field to rot, or compost it.
Place the inner fiber cores on a rack to dry somewhere out of the elements. Drying in the sun is best — since this will also lighten the color — but keep out of rain. When fully dry, shake and smack them to remove seeds. (Fully black seeds can be saved for next year.)
Gourds will not be uniformly colored on the inside. Wetter, cooler years seem to produce a range of darker colors, and hotter, drier years produce the very pale cream color that is highly desired.
As long as your gourds are not rotting or have mold spots, they are perfectly usable at any color. If you have small mold spots, or wish to lighten them further, a one day soak in a 10% beach solution may help.
Finished inner cores can be:
- Chopped up and used in homemade soap
- Attached to a smooth stick of wood and used as a back scrubber
- Cut into a 6″ tube and used as a body scrubber. I recommend looping a ribbon through the holes for easier hanging in the shower.
- Cut into small pieces for facial scrubbers, exfoliating knees and elbows, and scrubbing dishes.
- Select prime pieces to use as inexpensive, handmade bath gifts
Should You Grow Luffa?
If you have the space to devote to it, Luffa sp. requires no special care or attention. It is a space hog, though, and commercially produced luffa are cheap, plentiful and high quality. You probably should not replace a food crop that you like and use with luffa.
But if you have an unused arbor or ample space, luffa can be a fun crop to grow and process for home use. Certainly there is no other sponge-like produce that you will be able to grow at home, and is a natural choice in conjunction with soap-making, homesteading or just a desire to grow plants you can use all year round.