Well-reknown in America for their fibrous interior, and related to pumpkins and squash, luffas have been cultivated by humankind for thousands of years. Typically a foot in length and one-third that measurement in diameter, luffa-containing gourds are harvested by the millions each year to be used as scouring pads, dishwashing cloths, or custom-cut sponges found at thousands of beauty salons across our country. Rather easy to grow at home, the luffa is an attractive landscaping plant that provides a large, useful harvest every year with a multipurpose product that can be used around the house.
When planting luffa-containing gourds, it is important to remember that grow on vines, and thus is it imperative that climbing space be provided. Chain-link fences are as good as any garden trellis, providing an intricate climbing surface through which the plant may grow many support vines and produce a larger harvest. At planting-time, space seeds along the base of the climbing device one to two feet apart, then provide a mulch groundcover once the plants have taken hold. This layer of mulch will help to retain moisture, ensuring a better crop by providing the plant with adequate hydration for the water-loving gourds. An important planting folly to avoid is the presence of trees — besides loving open sun, gourds may eventually overtake the tree and climb beyond a height where they are easily harvested.
Like many plants, gourds are subject to insect pests and fungal diseases which may result in a failed crop. Among them, perhaps anthracnose and the cucumber beetle are the most threatening. Anthracnose, a fungal crop, is caused by warm weather, confined spaces, and a mold which often lends to the plant an apperance of having been scorched by fire. More effective than chemical treatment is the removal of affected plants, in addition to moving crops every year so that recurring pests may not continually build up. Cucumber beetles, also known to prey on pumpkins and squash (other members of the gourd family), are best taken care of with pesticides like rotenone or pyrethrum, available at most gardening stores. These persistent insects, which often over-winter in corn and bean fields, comprise both Diabrotica and Acalymma zoological genera, and are recognized by their spotted or striped black-and-yellow pattern.
It is important to remember that the best time to harvest a luffa is not when it is green and ripe, but rather yellow, wilted, and mature. This naturally dry state, which occurs in early to mid-autumn, makes harvesting the luffas inside far easier; simply strip the exterior with a sharp steak or paring knife, then cut the sponge inside into individual lengths. If you must harvest green gourds before a frost, several holes drilled into the gourd before being placed near a warm heat source may help to dry their interior and shell before water-encouraged decomposition takes place. Gourds are ready to be cracked open when the outside skin layer is paper-like and thinly brittle.
Whether used on the counter, in the sink, or for delicate beauty treatments, luffas are a useful, natural product of the earth that will likely be cultivated by humankind for thousands of years to come. Numerous in use and just as well suited to ornamental gardening, luffas can easily be grown at every home in America for their instrinsic botanical value.