Published on April 27, 2021

Memories are made of this

Growing sponges in Brazoria County

By Jan Edwards
The Bulletin

I’d like to share with you one of the more unusual plants I am growing this year - the sponge plant.
Its correct name is luffa (also spelled loofah) gourd. Grown to maturity, they produce dishrag, and/or facial sponges like you buy at beauty supply stores or the pharmacy.

I know what you’re thinking – sponges come from marine animals or are made from polyurethane, not a plant. But luffa gourds really do make the sponges, and you can grow them.

I am surprised how many people do not know anything about luffas – even those who use them.

I hadn’t even thought about growing luffas again until February, when visiting with my friend, Kristin, in Jasper. We were talking about gardens when she told me another friend of hers from Lumberton gave her a handful of luffa seeds. I asked for a couple of seeds, but Kristin is generous - she gave me a handful.

I didn’t need all those seeds because you only need one or two plants to get the sponges you desire. If you don’t have a generous friend, the seeds can be ordered online – anywhere between $2 and $9.75.

The luffa is a slow-growing vine but can make up to 30-foot tendrils. Each plant will produce anywhere from six to 20 gourds, depending on the growing season. Around here, we should get on the higher end of the gourds.

Luffas are in the same family (Cucurbitaceae or gourd family) along with their distant cousins - squashes, watermelons, cucumbers, melons and hard-shelled gourds. In fact, some people eat the flower buds, flowers and young fruit in salads. While I’ve never done that, I think I will give it a try this year. Since the luffa won’t produce mature fruit past the first frost, I’ll wait until it’s late in the season to try them. Supposedly, they taste like Summer Squash. We’ll see.

Luffas like full sun and well-drained moist soil with lots of compost, and they produce a vigorous vine that needs lots of room to run. That’s why I have mine planted on my deck – they can run all around the railing if they like. They take a long season to ripen (150 to 200 warm days). For that reason, leave the very first fruits that appear on the vine to mature into sponges.

Luffas are mature and ready to pick when the green skin turns dark yellow or brown and starts to separate from the fiber inside. You’ll want to leave the gourd on the vine as long as you can to get the maximum sponge fiber. If you leave it on the vine long enough to be hit by the first frost, pick and process it immediately.

Once the sponges mature, peel off the tough outer skin. If it’s already cracked, just pull it off in pieces. If the skin is intact, gently roll and squash the fruit until cracks appear and extend the cracks by pulling the torn edges of the skin with your thumbs. If the skin is really dry, you can soak the fruit in water for a minute or two.

Then get a bowl and pour the seeds out of the luffa and set them aside so you will have some to share next year. Wash the sap out of the fiber of the sponge with a strong jet of water or a bucket with a little dishwashing soap in it. Dry your sponges in the sun, turning them until they are completely dry. Store them in a fabric bag to keep them from getting dusty, and they will keep for years.

I planted all the seeds Kristin gave me in small pots so I could transplant what I wanted where I wanted them. And it left me with a whole lot of baby sponge gourds.

Then, I got to do my second favorite thing when growing a garden – share. Most of my neighbors down here are growing luffas this year – this is going to be fun. As the luffas grow, I’ll keep you posted on their progress.

Oh, I had two more errant baby seeds come up in my onion bucket – if anyone else wants to try growing sponges.

(Write Jan in care of The Bulletin. Email: john.bulletin@gmail.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)