Given my history of coldly executing generations of zucchinis in babyhood, it was a high risk endeavour to attempt to grow luffa. But the charmingly named “dish-rag gourd” is described on-line as a “large aggressive climber“, and apparently is an invasive weed in Uganda. So I thought I would give it a go. In fact, maybe I should only attempt to grow plants that sound like they should be banged up for burglary and GBH.
Luffa is a dual utility crop, a bit like our big boofy chickens Shima and Apricot. We don’t like to mention it when they’re around, but as well as being pretty good at layers, Barred Rocks (like Shima) and Light Sussexes (ie Apricot) make pretty good eating. Allegedly. We won’t do it, girls, we really won’t!
I’m not sure how toothsome baby luffa really are but there’s not many vegetables that can be used as a backscratcher, a pillow, a sound-proof liner for steel helmets, a device for cleaning car wind-shields or a filtration system for ship’s boilers, so perhaps we are asking too much for it to be haute cuisine.
Pearl Harbour was obviously a tragic event, but one little known casualty of the bombing of the US Navy was the sudden disappearance of luffas from bathrooms throughout America. Japan had been the main commercial producer since the 1890s, and so when America entered the war, the luffa supply was suddenly cut off. In the words of economic botanist W.M.Porterfield: “the same catastrophe that stopped their importation enormously increased the need for them” (1955, 212-3) and the US War Production Board forbad their delivery, sale or use for anything except filtration systems for ship’s boilers.
I am quite grateful that I’ve not been required to turn over my luffa crop to the authorities for some kind of military emergency. While I consider it to have been a success, that is relative to my usual abject failure on the gourd growing front. I managed to grow four mature fruits from three plants.
Luffa are tropical plants and need a long growing season. Given that my whole garden is plunged into shade around about the equinox, it was nip and tuck whether the fruits would get big enough to make a decent sized back scratcher. As with zucchini, you have to be patient. The first rather lovely yellow flowers, appearing in mid-summer, were male and only very late in the season, just as I was about to give up on it as yet another curcurbit failure, did female flowers and tiny perky fruits emerge.
On the positive side, the little luffa plants proved very easy to move around the garden so they could follow the sun – from little pots on the windowsill in spring, to hefty tubs on the sunniest spot on our patio. Since they’re actually a pretty vigorous plants for growing in a pot, I ended up moving one plant yet again, to the base of my “black widow” trellis. This spot had previously been the kiss of death for any vine I attempted to grow there.
Innumerable generations of passion fruit and even a choko plant have turned up their toes on that higgledy-piggledy bamboo lattice (what can I say: I’m a slow learner). By some kind of miracle, the luffa survived despite the fact I violated innumerable transplanting by-laws by moving a metre long vine covered in leaves in the middle of summer. It survived the chooks (more evidence that luffa are probably not worth eating), and produced a haul of three fruits. Okay, Porterfield reckons 20 fruits per vine is “to be expected”, but I find it’s best to cultivate low expectations.
There are lots of videos on YouTube sharing advice on getting the fibrous “skeleton” out of the luffa gourd. Which would have been more helpful if they weren’t a sequence of mutually contradictory tips. The smart money seems to be on leaving your luffas to dry as long as possible. Some of mine dried out a bit while hanging on the vine, but I left the rest on a sunny windowsill for a couple of months. In theory that skin should go hard, brown and leathery and then you can just peel it off, shake out the seeds and voila, there’s your luffa.
The alternative suggestion for those who were too impatient to wait for dry skin or, whose luffa (like mine) seemed likely to rot away in the meantime, involved cracking and carefully peeling off the skin and then squeezing and massaging out the remaining flesh and seeds in a bowl of water. Whacking the flaccid luffa a few times on the sink to help shift the flesh was also recommended by one YouTuber. The whole thing had a faintly sordid feel, like some sort of low rent vegetable s&m club, but did seem to work reasonably well in the end. After a few days of drying out on the windowsill, I now have a suite of firm, fibrous and faintly grubby looking luffa that my children will no doubt refuse to have anything to do with.
So what’s new? The vision of excited children running into the verdant backyard to pluck ripe organic snowpeas and strawberries has never really gelled with the scorched earth look of our chicken-denuded yard and proliferation of high-security possum-proof vegetable beds made of wire sock drawers found by the side of the road. So I’ll let yet another self-sufficiency fantasy go. The kids will remain (un-ex?)foliated but I’m still a seed saver – I’ll give “the dishrag gourd” another go.