How to grow and eat a bath­room sponge

There aren’t many mouth-wa­ter­ing veges that can also be a bath sponge and a dish­cloth.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - WORDS JENNY SOMERVELL

The luffa (or loofah) isn’t go­ing to win any prizes for or­na­men­ta­tion, but this fas­ci­nat­ing veg­etable packs in more uses than most West­ern veg­eta­bles. The bath sponge is per­haps best known. When a luffa is fully ripened on the vine the flesh dis­ap­pears, leav­ing only the fi­brous skele­ton and seeds. They are pro­cessed to re­move ev­ery­thing ex­cept a net­work of xylem fi­bres, to make an ab­sorbent and ex­fo­li­at­ing back scrub­ber, bath sponge or loofa.

In Asia it is used for scour­ing pots – they call it the dish­cloth gourd – and in mak­ing a range of prod­ucts in­clud­ing mats and shoes. Pow­dered luffa is used in skin care prod­ucts to re­duce swelling and detox­ify the skin. Be­fore the Sec­ond World War, luffas were used as fil­ters in US navy steam en­gines.

The same fruit, when im­ma­ture, has a juicy, del­i­cate flavour, sim­i­lar to zuc­chini. It’s de­li­cious driz­zled with sesame oil and soy sauce or with the ad­di­tion of browned gar­lic and slices of chilli pep­per for more flavour.

There are two species of luffa: smooth

luffa ( Luffa cy­lan­drica) also known as the dish­cloth gourd, rag gourd or sponge gourd, and an­gled luffa ( Luffa acu­tan­gula). Both can be made into sponges, but smooth luffa is gen­er­ally used be­cause it is much eas­ier to ex­tract the fi­brous skele­ton.

Luffa fruit look rather like over­grown zuc­chi­nis or cu­cum­bers. An­gled or ridged luffas are dark green, 30-60cm long (al­though they will get much bigger given the chance), with 10 raised ridges run­ning down the fruit. Peel­ing the ridges re­sults in a pretty striped pat­tern.

Smooth luffas are nor­mally 30-45cm long, and usu­ally smooth­skinned, though they can be slightly ridged. They are green and of­ten lightly striped, tend­ing to be larger at the lower end. They are gen­er­ally much heav­ier than an­gled luffas.

Luffas are climb­ing an­nu­als. Both species have large, deeply-cut leaves like a cu­cum­ber. In smooth luffa the young leaves are pale with sil­very patches.

They’re amaz­ing plants, grow­ing up to 10m in a grow­ing sea­son. Given suf­fi­cient warmth, they make an ex­cel­lent sum­mer screen cov­er­ing ev­ery inch of a substantial fence.

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