On the Road: Growing Loofah

| September 20, 2015 | 9 Replies

Files from the Road: Growing Loofah, third in a series. Ask any five people (I did) and they will tell you they thought loofah sponge came from the sea. Sheri Martin Bulla grows loofah (also spelled luffa) for sponges on a strip of her 30-acre farm out in the country in Hickman County, Tennessee. I drove on chert roads crossing beautiful Big Swan Creek to check out Sheri’s loofah.

Files from the Road: Growing Loofah - Big Swan Creek

Big Swan Creek

The genus of tropical and subtropical vines is actually a member of the cucumber family. Talk about versatile! Eat it when young in stir fry, or let it mature and polish your skin with the skeleton of xylem fibers. From Vietnam to India to the Philippines, loofah is grown as a green vegetable and used in curry, chutney and deep-fried as a snack. When allowed to mature, they become very fibrous. “I call them my babies,” she said to me, as she searched through her vines for some mature sponges.

Files from the Road: Growing Loofah - Loofah vines

Sheri searching for ripe loofah

Sheri said to start them indoors in the spring. “Thirteen is my lucky number,” she said, so she starts 13 vines, and plants them out on trellises after the last chance of frost. Once they get going, they really spread out. Luffa likes the heat and needs at least five months of it to mature into sponges. When they are light and start spotting, but before they are dark brown and totally dry, Sheri harvests, peels off the skin and shakes out the seeds.

Files from the Road: Growing Loofah - Mature loofah sponge

Mature loofah sponge

It peels as easy as a ripe banana, and the sponge encompasses the entire inside of the vegetable. Sheri says not to let the long fruit touch the ground while growing or it can rot.

Files from the Road: Growing Loofah - Peeling loofah

Peeling loofah

Loofah is loaded with silver-colored seeds which dry to charcoal black.

Files from the Road: Growing Loofah - Seeds

Loofah sponge loaded with seeds

Files from the Road: Growing Loofah - shaking out the seeds

Shaking out the seeds, which need to dry

Sheri’s loofah is softer than ones I’ve seen in markets, and I suspect it’s because she peels them before they totally dry on the vine. Still blooming in mid-September, the flowers resemble big cucumber blossoms.

Files from the Road: Growing Loofah - Loofah blossom

Loofah blossom

Sheri also had sun-loving zinnias and okra blooming.

Files from the Road: Growing Loofah - Zinnia

Zinnia reaching for the sun

Files from the Road: Growing Loofah - Okra blossom

Okra blossom soaking in the sunshine

Beneficial insects were hard at work in Sheri’s flower-packed garden.

Files from the Road: Growing Loofah - Praying Mantis

Praying Mantis on the lookout on a loofah

Files from the Road: Growing Loofah - Bumblebee

Bumblebee

She allows the sponges to dry inside before cutting into sections to sell at the local farmers market.

Files from the Road: Growing Loofah - Sheri at farmers market

Sheri Martin Bulla with her loofah at the local farmers market

Sheri had some loose seeds in her bag (which turned out to be 13!) that I will eagerly plant in the spring.

Files from the Road: Growing Loofah - Dried loofah seeds

13 Dried loofah seeds I will plant

Where did you think loofah came from? Have you grown it? If you enjoyed this post, please let me know. This series is about my musings on the road, interviews with family farmers, and whatever strikes my fancy. Thanks for reading, please subscribe if you haven’t, and share with a friend. Thanks for reading! – Kaye

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Category: Bees, Beneficials, Community, Garden Musings, Seeds, Vegetables, Warm Season

Comments (9)

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  1. GLADYS COTHRAN says:

    …truly enjoyed your article. Sheri is my sister-in-law…and we enjoy our
    activities and share info…The pictures were so neat and beautiful. Thank you for your effort in gathering the info, and then making it possible for others to learn and be inspired to give it a try! Gladys Cothran

    • You’re welcome and thanks, Gladys! I hope you will find more on Late Bloomer of interest and please subscribe to my web show. Click through to YouTube on the button on my site. Thanks so much!

  2. Claudette Faglie says:

    So glad you got the loofah seeds… you’ll love growing the vines. It amazes me how the flowers attract bees… never seen the like. I grew one vine this year and harvested three loofahs.

  3. You are right about most people thinking they are sea sponges and that one plant can take your entire garden space. I have grown them for over 50 years and offer seed and sponges . I wasn’t going to plant any this year but one volunteered and it has about 20 sponges on the plant . I have harvested them at many stages including totally black on the trellis and all dried out . They are softer if you harvest before they are dry on the vine .I just soak them in a bucket of water and the skin comes right off the next day. I use them in the shower and for bathing the horses or my truck .They are really tough and very versitile as well as a totally Green product! I bet they would make nice plant containers filled with potting mix …like a peat pot.

  4. Paula Justus says:

    Sheri has been my best friend since we were in our late teens. She came to my house in Knoxville and planted loofa for me. It did great that year when she planted it. I tried to do it myself the next year. It didn’t work for me. She needs to come back next year and plant it for me again…..or just send me some for Christmas!!!1

    • That’s great, Paula. I hope I am able to grow it, but first I have to find where I put those seeds! I packed rather quickly and haven’t seen them yet. I hope you enjoy other Files from the Road pieces as well as my Late Bloomer show while you are visiting my site. Thanks!

  5. Paula Justus says:

    I love the article! That’s my green thumb girl!

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