In the Northern Hemisphere, the absolute sign of winter is the proliferation of seed catalogs in every gardener’s mailbox. Gardening resources resolutely remain in the early Twentieth Century, and while most seed companies have extensive online resources, the print editions still fill my mail drop by the long ton. This isn’t a complaint, by the way: even the catalogs I can’t use get passed on to friends and coworkers who can, and most end their lives as source material for grade school collages and band flyers.
Many better writers than I have made fun of the inadequacies and creative embellishments found in seed catalogs and on seed packets. At the Triffid Ranch, I often laugh at the catalogs that sell Venus flytrap and pitcher plant seed as if they can be planted in the garden alongside the lettuce and carrots. Likewise, the last time I saw anyone selling saguaro cactus seeds for “easy” propagation of a plant that needs twenty years to grow to a meter in height, I laughed so hard that milk came out my nose. This was especially entertaining because I was drinking Pepsi Max at the time. Some people’s definition of “easy” is another’s of “wanting to hang the copywriter by his/her ankles from a tree branch, get a few cricket bats, and play Viking Piñata for a few hours.” And then you have the minor aggravations, such as the missing step in raising luffa squash.
Luffa squash (Luffa cylindrica), for the uninitiated, is a very versatile squash for many occasions. It grows very quickly in warm climes, so it does wonders for overgrowing ugly fences and other yard eyesores during the summer and fall. The thin vines grow one leaf and three tendrils at each vine junction, so they’re much more likely to grow to great heights on tree bark and other rough-textured surfaces, and the tendrils don’t damage the surface, so they come off readily after the first serious freeze in autumn or winter. (In Dallas, for instance, they generally keep growing all the way until Christmas if given the opportunity.) Luffa leaves don’t have stomata on both sides of the leaf, like pumpkins or summer squash, so they thrive on heat that would kill most other squash. They produce large yellow male flowers that both attract bees and bumblebees and can be stir-fried after they drop from the plant. The squash fruit themselves apparently taste like zucchini, and so long as the roots are in slightly acidic and rich soil, a typical vine will produce dozens over the growing season. (I understand that they can bee cooked or eaten raw like zucchini, but since I simply can’t handle the taste of squash, I haven’t had the courage to find out.)
It’s the mature fruit that gives luffas their main draw, though, and anyone wanting a decent supply has to save a few from the crock put or wok. Instead of decaying into a mushy pulp in winter like most squash, the luffa dries out like a gourd, but without a hard outer shell. Underneath the skin is a lattice framework of fibers, which are much prized as natural scrubbers. These are most famed for their bathtub and shower attributes, especially for those needing serious exfoliation, but they also come in handy for scrubbing nonstick pots without damaging the finish, adding texture paints to walls, or removing algae from fishtanks. Small ones can be used as short-term filters for many liquids, and the big ones can be sliced up and embedded in soaps. It’s quite the versatile little squash, which makes it a particular shame that most seed packets and garden guides leave out one important step in its processing.
To begin, for those wanting to raise luffas, get your seeds, either from luffa-growing enablers or from a commercial seed catalog. Luffa seeds, if kept in the refrigerator, remain viable for as much as five years, so don’t worry about getting them into the ground right away. In fact, you want to wait until outside low temperatures exceed 15.55° C (60° F) and then plant them, because they won’t even think of sprouting before then. Luffas generally tolerate a wide range of soils, but make sure to keep potash and fireplace ashes away from the seedlings or they’ll be permanently stunted for the season. Luffa seeds are best sown directly in their permanent location, as they don’t transplant well, but they’re very vulnerable to attacks from sowbugs until they get their first set of real leaves. I’ve found that sowing the seeds and then dumping large quantities of coffee grounds atop them not only gives them the slight acidity they seem to like, but also gives the sowbugs an alternate food source that keeps them away from the squash until they’re large enough to repel attacks. Other than that, water them regularly, especially in particularly hot weather, and the luffa will start producing its first male flowers within three weeks of sprouting and female flowers about a week later.
For the most part, luffa seem to be reasonably immune to most pests, and they attract hunting wasps to the flowers, which usually take care of caterpillars and other potential pests. For those with gardens in suitable habitat, luffa vines produce excellent habitat for climbing lizards: here in Dallas, one stand of luffa can support a whole harem of anole lizards (Anolis carolinensis), so long as pesticides aren’t used in the area. The lizards hunt, sleep, and bask within the vines, which usually grow thick enough that they offer suitable cover against birds, snakes, and other predators. In return, they clear out sucking insects and other potential threats.
The only serious pest attacking luffas is easily recognized by its long bushy tail, big eyes, and a brain the size of a pea. As the luffa fruit matures, squirrels converge on any luffas they can reach and gnaw through the vine before carrying them off. Since treerats are the antithesis of grace, and since luffas readily grow into trees, this means that the little klutzes get one or two bites out of the squash, lose their grip, and watch it fall two stories or more onto the hardest ground the squirrels can find. As with dropped nuts or peaches, does this mean that the little vermin climb down and eat the dropped luffa so it doesn’t go to waste? Of course not: the monsters instead go for another easily obtained luffa, leaving the dropped one to rot until it’s joined by a few more. (There’s a reason why I consider the term “squirrelly” to be fightin’ words.) Thankfully, luffa vines are thin so as to allow easy reach of thin branches and other precarious locales, so many fruit grow unmolested at the tops of trees before dropping when they’re good and ripe.
Okay, let’s assume that you had a good crop of luffa over the summer, and not all of them ended up in stirfry meals for grateful friends and family. You want a batch of potscrubbers and buttscrubbers, but you want to make sure that they’re at the height of ripeness. What do you do now?
The harvesting of luffa squashes for scrubbing purposes honestly depends upon the growing locale and the length of the season. Pick the luffas too early, and you’re likely to end up with a moldy, rotting mess. Peel them too early, and you’re likely to spend five times as much work cleaning them as you would when they were ready. The problem is telling whether they’re ready.
The absolutely guaranteed way of telling if luffas are ready for harvesting is to wait until they shrivel, brown, and dry out at the end of autumn. This is great in warmer climes, but it’s not practical in, say, Canada. However, the best thing to do is wait as long as possible before a killing frost damages the squash, or until the main plant takes responsibility for cutting off its offspring.
In the above photo, we have a mature luffa. For the sake of what comes next, the left side, with the length of vine still attached, is the tail. The right side, still bearing the scars from where the flower was attached, is the head. The uncleaned fruit will also be referred to as a luffa squash, while “luffa” is reserved solely for the internal structure alone. Remember these, because these become important later.
The easy way to ascertain if a luffa is ripe on the vine is to grab it at the head end and squeeze gently. It should feel like a skin over an empty framework, which is exactly what it should be. If it’s still squishy, or if it feels overly heavy, then it’s probably unripe. If you can help it, leave the luffa on the vine and don’t mess with it for at least another month. If an impending killer frost is on the way, though, then remove it from the vine, leaving about six inches of vine at the end. If the tail end of the luffa is already going brown, particularly at the junction where the tail connects to the vine, then it’s already drying, and is usually ready to be picked at the time. If that junction is still green, then leave that section of vine to assist the squash with its drying. Do NOT, under any circumstances, cut the vine flush with the tail, because you’ll likely set off mold and rot at the cut.
In this picture, you see two ripe and dried luffa squash. The upper one dried out in the upper boughs of a pecan tree all autumn, and the scars on the surface are from where it bumped into tree branches while it was still green. Don’t worry about those scars, because the impacts usually don’t effect the quality of the luffa within. The bottom one was dried after being picked from the vine, and note the spots of mold on the shell. These need to be watched, because small spots of mold usually won’t be a problem. If it’s a big patch, or if it appears to be sinking into the squash, then the mold might be spreading through the body of the squash. Sometimes this is all right, too, but with early-picked luffa squash, this could lead to the whole squash rotting if it’s not dealt with.
As a sidenote, you might have some luffa squash with damage such as cracks or bruises, especially when the local squirrels decide to liberate them and they fall a story or two onto the cold, cold ground. Trying to dry them will just be a waste of time, so open up the squash at the crack or bruise and take a look at the interior. If the interior is hollow or if it shows extensive stringy understructure, go directly to cleaning it. If it’s still relatively solid with a white pulp reminiscent of cucumbers or zucchini, just dump it in the compost pile. It’s too green to develop any understructure, and all it’ll do is turn into a slimy mess if you attempt to save it.
If your luffa squash are already dried, then just put them into a bag or basket and leave them alone until you’re ready to clean them. if they’re still green, then set them in a warm place with good air circulation and let them dry some more. That good air circulation is vital, because if they don’t get it, the squash WILL rot. Not “may”: WILL. I speak from experience, as the only thing worse than cleaning that aforementioned slimy mess out of a laundry room or water heater closet is the smell from that mess. Leave them out on a counter, or put them in a room under a ceiling fan, and leave them alone for a few weeks. Check up on them every couple of days, and watch as they shrink and brown.
At this point, if your luffa vines were in decent soil and had plenty of climbing options, you should have anywhere between one and thirty dried luffa squash ready for cleaning and preparation. For that, you’ll need:
- One bathtub or washtub, preferably one needing a good cleaning
- One bottle of shampoo (brand doesn’t matter, and sometimes the cheap stuff works best)
- One bowl or other container for catching seeds
- Grubby clothes
- Goggles or an eyeshield, to keep squash pulp out of your eyes
If your luffas are extremely dried, you’ll note that peeling the skin from the luffa is almost impossible. Greener squash are easier to peel, but they need lots of washing afterwards. Either way, take advantage of the need to clean your bathtub. I have the unfortunate habit of cleaning my tub about the time it starts to resemble a scale model of the Mississippi Delta, so it’s time to fill up the tub about halfway with hot water.
In the interim, if you know anyone who wants to raise luffa squash next season, you’ll have to gather seeds. Break off the end of the head of the squash and hold the end over a container. You’ll hear the seeds rattling, so just keep shaking gently until the seeds stop falling. Always open the squash at the head, because the luffa can sometimes get so narrow that seeds can’t escape out the tail end. Gather up the seeds and put them into bags, or put them into a jar and place them in the refrigerator until spring.
Once this is done, dump your squashes into the bathtub, and let them soak for a while. The reason why you cracked open the head was also to allow water to enter the squash, making the job easier. If you’re particularly industrious, feel free to pour hot water into the opening, but otherwise you’re going to have to wait for a while. (This also applies to luffas picked green, as you’re going to need to wash off the mucilage off the luffa before it’s usable.)
Luffas before soaking
Once the squash has been soaking for a while and the skin is soft, punch your thumb through the skin at the tail, getting it between the luffa and the skin. Work your way up to the head, and peel back the skin. Once it comes free, set it aside for the compost pile and grab another one, because if your luffa plants were remotely productive over the year, you’re going to be busy.
At this point, your tub should be full of peeled luffas. It’ll also be full of seeds, as a lot of seeds were caught up in the luffas and unable to escape until you removed the skins. Don’t worry about them in the slightest, because you’ll have to deal with more.
Disgusting, isn’t it? This is why I recommended using a dirty tub, because you’re going to have to clean it anyway.
Now here comes the important part of the whole cleaning. The dry luffas are going to be full of dried mucilage, which will leave everything they wash with a nice coat of slime if it isn’t cleaned in advance. The green luffas have just as much mucilage, but it’s combined with starches and other compounds that also prevent the luffa from being used for cleaning. Start by grabbing that bottle of shampoo and pouring a good dollop of Aussie, Paul Mitchell, or your brand of choice right on the first luffa. Massage it in, rinse it off in the tub, and do it again. Do it with the next one, and the next, until all of your luffas are nice and sudsy.
Next, put on your goggles or faceshield and grab a luffa by the tail. Picture yourself as Thetis dipping your son Achilles into the River Styx to give him invulnerability and give that luffa the same grip. Next, picture yourself discovering that Achilles is going to dedicate the rest of his life to writing term papers on Firefly and Twilight, and bash the hell out of the luffa against the sides of the tub. Go to town, and don’t worry about the seeds and bits of pulp flying everywhere: that’s why you’re wearing eye protection. When you’re reasonably sure that you’ve removed every seed (and you’ll be able to feel them inside the luffa), scrub the luffa again with shampoo and grab the next one. Repeat the cycle, as Thetis apparently had a lot of kids planning to study Pop Culture in college.
Once you’re done with taking your frustrations out on your luffas, rinse them well, and set one tail-up into the tub drain. Drain the tub, and note how the luffa acts as a filter to prevent seeds from getting into the drain. Most of these seeds are inviable, so you’re within your rights to scoop them out of the tub and dump the whole mess into the compost pile. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, spread out the mess where you plan to plant luffas next season, cover them with a good thick layer of coffee grounds and compost, and wait to see if they come up next year. Rinse off the luffas with clear water and set them aside to dry. Feel free to give them away to family and friends, or just settle for using them for cleaning the tub. See, I told you that it needed a good scrub by now.
Now, as with any horticultural advice, these steps may be modified or arranged in any fashion whatsoever, at the discretion of the luffa farmer. You do have to admit, though, that this is still a better guide than those seed guides, right?