Loofah vines are a long season annual that love hot weather and slow down growth during cooler periods. They can grow up to 30 feet (10m) tall, so are great for vertical gardening and growing up and over trellis, fencing or walls.
The loofah, or luffa plant, is a type of squash. While it is not strictly a vegetable, it can be eaten when young. It is the mature plant that is dried and used as a back scratcher or scrubber. The vine they grow on has similarities to the cucumber vine.
When choosing loofah seeds, select healthy, mature seeds that are dark and hard, very similar to watermelon seeds. In warmer climates, they can be planted directly into the ground, but in cooler areas, or if you want a head start on the season, they can be grown undercover for extra protection.
TOP TIP: Plant at a depth approximately three times the diameter of the seed.
Planting or transferring
When planting or transferring, loofahs like to be at least 3ft (1m) apart, but if you have the space, 6ft (2m) is best. Make sure you wait until the last frost before planting, otherwise they will die.
Starting in pots
If you are going to start growing loofahs in pots, a 10cm or 4-inch pot is perfect for the first four weeks. Beyond that, 13cm to 15cm or a 5 to 6-inch pot is going to last longer as the plant matures. You may also need a pot trellis, otherwise known as a plant support, for your loofah. This is because the loofah is a climbing plant and will grow quite tall.
Loofah seed germination rates can vary widely, about 50% to 80% when in ideal planting conditions. Some seeds may take longer than others from the same batch. It could take weeks. Typically, it takes seven to 14 days, but it can be as short as four or five days for fresh seeds in ideal conditions.
Young loofah plants are vulnerable to weeds and pests. The shade from weeds will stunt their growth and the usual garden pests such as slugs and snails will do their best to hamper your harvest. Once the vines start to get bigger, your loofah plant will fend for itself and climb over most obstacles.
How big will my loofah get?
The loofah vines must have a strong trellis system to climb. The vines prefer to grow tall and will do well on a 6ft to 10ft (2-3m) high trellis. The vine length can exceed 30ft (9m). The loofah sponges can get heavy, so the more places the vine tendrils can hold on to the better, though it may still need to be supported so that it doesn’t pull the whole vine down. Loofah plants won't grow as well on a single cable as they do on lattice or fence links with multiple support points. Loofahs will circle and climb wooden poles if the surface is rough enough. They can also climb on walls with a rough surface.
Training the vines to go where you want can be accomplished by gently wrapping the tendrils around supports in the desired direction; the vines are moderately flexible until they grow very large. Growing along the ground is more likely to produce a curved loofah and increases the chance of mould setting in. In terms of flowering, loofahs will produce large yellow flowers that can help repel insects and bugs with their odour.
Pollination needs to occur before a pod will form. Bees, butterflies and ants will often do this for you, but it can also be done by hand.
Hand pollination can be done using a cotton bud or small paint brush by swabbing from the male to the female flower. The female flowers are the solitary large stemmed ones and the males will be clustered together with thinner stems. Once pollination occurs, the female flower will fall off, leaving the pod to fully develop, first into a soft edible fruit and later it will harden into a fibre-filled seed pod.
Harvest when the skin feels thin and loose, as if it is going to come off easily. Leaving it to dry in the sun can make it easier to peel. Many people find it easier to cut the bottom off before peeling and shaking or tapping out the seeds into a bucket. There should be a few hundred in a good-sized loofah! The banging and tapping will also help to loosen the skin, making it easier to peel. Peeling the loofah itself is not that dissimilar to peeling a banana. Once peeled, wash thoroughly, then dry out completely before storing to avoid it going mouldy. It can then be cut into different shapes as scrubbing pads for pots and pans or left whole as a back scratcher or exfoliator.
Colour tip: If you don’t like the natural colour, you can soak it in hydrogen peroxide or household bleach, just don’t leave it in soak for too long. It’s okay for your loofah to be any colour from brown to green, they are all unique!
The history and uses of loofahs
Loofahs are still used in Chinese medicine practices to treat rheumatic pain, otherwise known as pain caused by diseases and inflammation. In Asia, the loofah is known as dishcloth, as it is frequently used to clean and scrub pots, pans and kitchenware. Loofahs are excellent for exfoliating the skin and removing dead skin cells. They can also assist with skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema to aid in itching and discomfort. It is said that loofahs are originally from India, as they are widely known and have been grown there for a considerable amount of time; however, the origin of this unique plant is yet to be proven.
How compatible is the loofah with growing in Australia?
Loofah plants can be sown between September and December, otherwise known as late spring and early Summer. They love warm, sunny conditions, so don’t forget to consider this when choosing a location. Keep the soil around your loofah plant moist but not soaked. This can be helped by ensuring it has enough room to drain. In terms of companion planting, loofah can be planted amongst peas, beans, sweetcorn and onions. But don’t forget to keep them away from potatoes! Potatoes are not ideal for companion planting and both plants may be impacted in terms of overall success. Your loofah should be ready to harvest roughly 11 to 12 weeks after planting. Please note, this compatibility is based on Australian climates. Results may differ in other locations and climates around the world.
N.B. Please consult your medical health care professional before using natural remedies to treat skin or health conditions. Always allergy test and apply new remedies with caution. If a reaction or irritation occurs, consult a medical professional.
This article has been written for Australian gardens. If you're reading this from around the world, we do hope you've found it a useful stepping stone for your own further research.