When I was growing up in Russia in the 80s, loofah sponges were very common. So common that we didn’t even call them ‘loofah sponges’ but just ‘sponges’. They were imported mainly from Cuba, I guess as part of the Russian government’s support to the Cuban economy. Very few people knew what loofah actually was and no one really cared to ask. And it’s a shame because not only loofah can be grown locally in some mild climate regions but it’s also a very versatile plant!
What is loofah?
Loofah (or luffa) is a relative of cucumber from tropical and subtropical climates. It is a vining plant that produces large size gourd fruits very rich in fiber and nutrients. Although it is commonly grown in warm and humid places like India, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and China, loofah gourds make for a great summer crop even in Canada and the US. Japan has adopted loofah in all regions as a farm crop both for food and sponge production and is grown in residential areas to provide natural shade over the windows and patios in the summertime.
In the US, luffa was grown domestically for decades. During the early 1990s, research in Missouri and North Carolina demonstrated that commercial production of luffa sponge gourds was also feasible in the United States. Rising demand for luffa products, a desire for new, high-value crops, and low wholesale prices stimulated interest in producing large acreages of luffa sponge gourds in the Southeastern United States, particularly in North Carolina and Florida (NC State Extension). As of today, a simple Google search for loofah growers in the US gives you a handful of small family-owned farms mostly based in Central California.
A dinner and a bath in one gourd.
Loofah gourds are edible and quite tasty but only when harvested before their maturity. Young fruit texture is similar to a regular squash and can be cooked in a similar way. In Asia, loofah is a very common ingredient used in many different dishes. India, probably, shows the most diverse culinary use for loofah where every region has its own key way of using this vegetable.
If the gourd is left to ripe and dry on the vine, it’s juicy flesh disappears and all is left under the dry skin is a fibrous skeleton and a bunch of seeds. The skin can be easily peeled and the seeds shaken out, and – voila – you hold a sponge in your hand.
Loofah fiber is very strong yet very soft. It makes for a perfect scrubber for delicate surfaces, dishes and even your skin. Skin care experts love recommending loofah sponges for gentle exfoliation and microvascular massage for sensitive skin as loofah fiber is hypoallergenic and doesn’t cause skin damage. As for the dishes and general cleaning purposes, I can say from my own experience that scrubbing with this sponge is just as effective as with any stiff scrubber but much more safe for delicate surfaces.
One disadvantage of loofah sponge is a relatively short life. If you use your sponge every day you should probably replace it every 3-4 weeks or so. I throw mine in a washer or dishwasher every so often which gets me an additional week. But then you still need to replace it as the natural fiber absorbs organic matter from your skin or food leftovers and creates a thriving environment for bacteria. The best thing about it is that it is completely biodegradable like any other plant fiber.
I have tried and you can too!
In 2019, I got my hands on some loofah (luffa) seeds and decided to try to grow it in my own garden. I live in Southern California where the climate is mild and the growing season is long. With consistent watering, the conditions are perfect for this plant!
I grew two plants in containers and really enjoyed looking at their lush green leaves and humongous yellow flowers vining along the fence! My harvest wasn’t excessive, but I had enough gourds to give sponges to my friends and family at the end of the season. Loofah fruits are quite big and can be cut in two or even three pieces to make more sponges. And I had a great bonus with all the seeds I got to collect from my gourds!
Having that first-hand experience, we at BYOJ decided to add loofah sponges to our inventory. The diversity of use and the fact that it is 100% biodegradable vegan product makes it a superstar for BYOJ mission.