Luffa Love!

They may look exotic, but these all-natural scrubbing sponges are easy to grow in your backyard, making a great addition to your garden bed – and your beauty routine.

While they may look like sea sponges, most luffa {or loofah} “sponges” that you see on store shelves come not from the sea but from a plant. These scrubbers help exfoliate dead cells and surface impurities for healthy, glowing skin. The bonus; you don’t have to go to a store to buy one. Growing luffa is actually quite simple and fun.

Planting Your Luffa

Luffa {Luffa aegyptiaca}, known also as sponge gourd, Egyptian cucumber, hechima {in Japanese}, Chinese okra, and Vietnamese luffa, belongs to the Cucurbitaceae family of plants, which includes gourds, squashes, pumpkins, cucumbers, and melons. It’s most closely related to cucumbers in appearance and growth.

Luffa is the perfect addition to your garden space. Besides offering a range of household uses, they are edible and compostable and pollinators love their bright-yellow flowers. They are also easy to grow if you give them plenty of sunshine, water, and a place to climb.

You can find seeds at most garden shops and online. Local growers or neighbors will often gladly sell or even give seeds, as each gourd produces 100-200 seeds, depending on size. These large, black seeds are easy to handle, but they have a hard, outer shell so you will need to soak your seeds for 12 hours before planting. Some people also clip a tiny portion off the rounded end to help the seeds soak up more water and germinate faster.

Start your seeds inside before planting. It takes almost 90 days to produce a full-grown sponge, and may not have a long enough outdoor growing season. {North Carolina and Florida produce the most luffa in the United States. If you are lucky to live in either of these states, visit a local luffa farm or grower.} Once the danger of frost has passed and seedlings have sent out their first true leaves, you can transplant them.

If you are sowing outdoors, plant seeds 1-inch deep either directly in the ground or in a container with good drainage and rich, organic soil. Make sure you find a spot with full sun, and provide a trellis or sturdy fence nearby, as luffas love to climb. Water deeply every seven days to encourage strong roots, and fertilize with a finished compost when you see the first flowers form. After pollination, it’s the female flowers which produce the fruit. Luffas can cross-pollinate with other luffa varieties, but not with other gourds, so you can safely plant them next to other Cucurbitaceae species.

Luffa requires a lot of the same care as cucumbers to remain healthy and happy. Train the vines by gently placing tendrils where you would like them to climb. Luffa pods won’t grow unless the flowers pollinate {a good reason to keep bee-friendly companion plants nearby}. According to Luffa.info, you can also promote pollination by using a paper-based cotton swab to remove pollen from the male flowers {clustered, with thin stems} to the female blooms {solitary, with large stems}.

Harvesting Your Plants

For most regions, fall is the time to harvest. If you plan on eating them, pick your luffas when they reach about six inches long. Prepare the green pods as you would summer squash or zucchini; simply peel the skin, chop up the fruit, and add it to recipes. {Save the green peels, as they make wonderful cleansing facial and body scrubs that can be used in place of soap. They are also compostable.

If you want to make sponges, then leave the pods on the vine until they turn yellow/brown. Pick them from the vine and let them dry for about one to two weeks; then cut off the ends of your gourd and shake out the black seeds to save for next year or for sharing. Soak the gourd in fresh water and gently peel off the outer skin. The inner, fibrous skeleton is what you will use as your sponge.

luffa sponges

Caring for Your Luffa

The number one rule of luffa care is to keep it dry. Luffas can harbor bacteria so it is important to sanitize and care for your luffa properly. Rinse your luffa after each use and let it air dry completely. Always store your luffa in a dry spot, and not inside your shower, where it can’t dry completely between uses. Some people attach a piece of cord or rope to their luffas and hang them to dry.

Once a week, rinse your luffa and clean it by either boiling it in a pot of water on the stovetop, placing it in the top rack of your dishwasher or throwing it in the washing machine with a load of towels. Air dry your luffa thoroughly and it should last several months to a year. When it’s time to toss your sponge {it will look a lot darker and start to smell sour}, compost it or place it in the bottom of your flowerpots to help them retain moisture.

How Best to Use a Luffa

Luffa helps exfoliate and cleanse the surface of your skin by removing dead skin cells and other surface impurities. They also provide a gentle massage that boosts circulation and general well-being.

  1. Wet your luffa in the shower or bath with warm water. {The texture of the luffa may seem rough at first, but once you add hot water, it becomes much softer and easier to use on your skin.} The more you wet it and the longer it soaks in water, the softer it will become. Keep this in mind if you plan on using your luffa on classic rough skin spots, such as your feet or elbows, and would prefer a rougher texture.
  2. Apply your favorite cleanser or soap to your luffa. While not necessary, some people enjoy using their luffa with a body wash. You only need a little bit of body wash, and the luffa works double-duty cleansing and exfoliating. Just avoid sensitive skin areas on your body, and never use a luffa on your face.
  3. Starting at your shoulders, massage your body with the luffa in circular motions. Work your way down to your feet focusing on rough skin or areas with dry skin, such as the back of your arms or legs. A circular motion will help remove dead skin cells and is easier on your skin than an up-and-down scrubbing motion.
  4. Rinse your body with warm water, followed by a cool water rinse {as cool as you can stand}.
  5. Repeat weekly or bi-weekly depending on your skin type.

Luffa Beauty Recipes

Here are some recipes for using and enjoying your luffa plants. A homegrown luffa makes a wonderful present, and the addition of all-natural bath products makes the gift package complete.

Luffa Vine Water Toner

Luffa vine water is a traditional Japanese lotion made from soaking a freshly cut piece of hechima vine in some sake or shochu {an alcoholic beverage distilled from rice, barley, and sweet potatoes}. Use it as a toner after washing your face to protect and moisturize your skin.

  • 1 piece of freshly cut luffa vine {about 12-18 inches in length}
  • 1/2 cup sake or shochu
  • 1/2 cup water

In a clean glass jar or bowl, place the freshly cut luffa vine and sake. Let sit overnight {which will allow the water from the vine to fully infuse the alcohol}. Strain the liquid and then add water. To use: Apply to your skin after cleansing as a toner. Yield: 8 ounces.

Green Luffa Skin Cleanser

Much like cucumber peels, the green outer skin of the luffa plant is naturally astringent, making it a great ingredient for cleansing and freshening your skin. This simple recipe cleans well enough to replace your soap, and all skin types will enjoy it. Because it contains fresh foods, store it in the refrigerator between uses.

  • 1 cup green luffa peels
  • 1 Tbls aloe vera gel
  • 1 tsp raw honey
  • 1-2 Tbls water

Place all ingredients in a food processor or blender and process until you have a smooth, green mixture. Pour into a clean container with a tightly fitting lid. To use: Massage into damp skin and rinse well with warm water. Yield: 8 ounces.

Soothing Luffa Sugar Scrub

Keeping skin clean not only prevents breakouts, it helps the skin absorb more moisture, so once a week, use a good, all-over skin scrub to remove dead cells, allowing the fresh skin underneath to hydrate. Sugar works well because it’s less dehydrating than salt and it suits all skin types. For extra cleansing power, you can grate dried luffa gourds with a cheese grater and add it to skin-scrub recipes, as I did in this recipe. Grating the dried luffa makes it gentle and less abrasive.

  • 1 cup raw sugar
  • 1/4 cup almond oil
  • 1/2 tsp vitamin E oil
  • 2 Tbls grated dried luffa

Mix together all ingredients and pour into a clean container. To use: Stand in the shower or tub and massage a tablespoon or two of the scrub all over your body to gently exfoliate and moisturize your skin. Rinse well afterward. If you feel you need more moisture, follow up with more almond oil or your favorite body lotion. Yield: 8 ounces.

Luffa Soap Bars

Use this gentle scrubbing bar to remove dirt after a day spent gardening. You can also use these bars to cleanse your whole body, but be careful around sensitive areas. {Do not use this soap to wash your face, as it’s too harsh.} The natural luffa sponge helps exfoliate dead skin cells and surface impurities, leaving your skin clean, soft, and smooth. I use a serrated bread knife to slice the dried luffa gourd. You can use a variety of kitchen items as soap molds, including muffin tins, plastic dishes, mini loaf pans, and clean food containers.

  • 2 bars of pure, natural soap {such as castile or coconut oil}, chopped
  • 2 Tbls vegetable glycerin
  • 1 Tbls water
  • 4 slices dried luffa sponge, 1/2-inch thick

Place the luffa slices on an oiled cookie sheet or inside a lightly greased soap mold {mineral oil will work for this}. In a double boiler, gently heat the soap, glycerin, and water until you have a thick mixture and all the soap is melted. Spoon the melted soap inside your luffa slices and allow it to harden. Trim your soap with a sharp knife. To use: Apply to your skin as you would a luffa sponge or any scrubbing bar of soap. Avoid broken skin or rashy areas. Yield: 8 ounces, 3 to 4 bars of soap.

Favorite Herbs Luffa Soap

Combine shredded luffa with other dried herbs, such as lavender, chamomile, mint, or rosemary, to create a soap that exfoliates and smells great! Really, any scented herb you enjoy will work. Do not use fresh herbs in this recipe, as the moisture in the herbs can cause bacteria to grow.

  • 1 bar {1/2 cup} glycerin soap
  • 1 tsp water
  • 1 Tbls dried herbs such as lavender, chamomile, or rosemary {or a combination}
  • 1 Tbls grated luffa

Place the luffa and herbs inside a soap mold. In a double boiler, gently heat the soap, glycerin, and water until you have a thick mixture and all the soap has melted. Spoon the melted soap inside your molds and allow it to harden. Trim your soaps with a sharp knife. To use: Apply to the skin as you would any scrubbing bar of soap. Avoid broken skin or sensitive areas. If needed, follow with moisturizer. Yield: 8 ounces, 3 to 4 bars of soap.

Luffa’s Other Uses

Luffa sponges offer a range of uses beyond your beauty regime, and they have been used and cultivated since ancient times. The Egyptians grew these gourds for food and also used the fibrous “skeleton” to make shoes and sandals. Prior to World War ll, luffas were also used on ships as filters and as insulation material. You can still find luffa sandals for sale in some countries today.

  • Arts: As a natural material, dried luffa makes an interesting “stamp” for creating designs on paper and fabric when dipped in paint. It also adds a natural texture to paint surfaces, such as walls and ceilings. Children can also have fun decorating luffa sponges with a variety of natural items, creating soft sculptures and dolls.
  • Kitchen: Use a luffa to scrub stubborn grease or leftover food on pots and pans. They stay dryer than a regular sponge {microwave your wet luffa for two minutes to kill germs}. To keep a bar of hand soap dry, place a slice of luffa underneath it.
  • Bath: Cut your luffa lengthwise, remove the inner core, and flatten the outer skeleton to create a material that you can use as a washcloth, to wear as spa slides {those sandals you put on after a pedicure}, or even as a natural maxi pad. Of course, a luffa works great to scrub soap scum buildup in the shower.

Scrambled Eggs and Luffa

Not just for beauty, luffa also tastes great. Young luffa gourds or “Chinese okra” {Luffa acutangula} make a tasty addition to stir-fry recipes. You can find them in some Asian markets, and they provide the body with manganese, potassium, vitamin A, and dietary fiber. Slice them on the diagonal in small, 1-inch pieces.

  • 1 Tbls vegetable oil
  • 2 tsp minced garlic
  • 2 cups luffa gourd, peeled and cut into 1-inch slices
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and stir until light brown and aromatic. Add luffa and stir until softened, about 1-2 minutes. Add eggs and cook until set. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with rice or steamed vegetables. Yield: 16 ounces, 2 servings.

Sea-Sponges-6

What About Sea Sponges?

Considered one of the oldest organisms on Earth, sea sponges – porous, bottom-dwelling sea creatures – grow like plants, but are actually classified as animals. Unlike other animals, however, they do not have circulatory, digestive, or central nervous systems. They belong to the Porifera phylum, referring to their porous features. The sponges filter the water that flows through these pores, gathering nutrients and releasing waste.

You can find sustainably grown sea sponges online and in stores. Softer than luffa sponges, sea sponges serve as environmentally friendly alternatives to the plastic poufs sold in the body wash aisle, since they are biodegradable and regrow after harvesting.

Look for ones that haven’t been bleached or treated with other chemicals. As with luffa plants, sea sponges offer a range of uses, from exfoliating skin to washing dishes to enhancing arts and crafts. And with a variety of species {5,000, in fact} to choose from, you can find the right sea sponge to suit your needs.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.