The Luffa or Loofah/Luffah are tropical and subtropical annual vines comprising the genus Luffa. The fruit of at least two species, Luffa acutangula and Luffa aegyptiaca, is grown to be harvested before maturity and eaten as a vegetable, popular in Asia and Africa.
The Luffa acutangula is commonly known as Ridged Gourd and is called “zika” in Assamese, si gua in Mandarin Chinese, Turai in Hindi, Gisoda in Gujarati, Beerakaya in Telugu, heeray kAyi in Kannada, wetakolu in Sinhala, mrop khia in Vietnamese language, patola in Tagalog, kabatiti in Ilocano, and gambas or oyong in Indonesia.
Loofah is a climbing vine related to gourds and cucumbers, and sometimes called the “dishrag vine,” a reference to the sponge-like qualities of the dried fruit. Six species are in the Luffa genus, and they are widely cultivated for food and sponge uses. The loofah is the only plant source of sponge, and it has been used in bathhouses and kitchens for centuries.
Loofah is harvested for food in many parts of Asia. All species of loofah are edible, but they must be consumed before they mature, or they will be too woody and fibrous to eat. Loofah is cooked before eating, and is sometimes seen on menus as “Chinese okra.” When allowed to mature and dry on the vine, loofah can be harvested as a sponge. The woody exterior skin is peeled away, and the seeds shaken out for reseeding. The loofah sponge can be sold whole, or chopped into smaller and more manageable portions. Loofah can also be compressed for shipping. The net of straw colored fibers will puff up again if the loofah is moistened.
The plant prefers deep well drained sandy loam soils, rich in organic matter with a pH ranging between 6.5 to 7.5. But it can also be grown on any good soil. The soil may be prepared well by adding organic matter or animal manure a few weeks before planting.
Once they get established, the plants are quite vigorous. They grow on vines that can reach well over 20 feet(6m) in length. A strong supporting trellis is a must. Chain link fence and lattice works great. The more support points the better. The fruits get very heavy. Luffa may survive in partial shade with some direct sunlight, but produce more in full sun. In a very hot dry climate they will need some watering as they tend to wilt if it gets too dry. Yearly rainfall here is typically 40 to 50 inches (102-127 cm). After the roots have developed, our vines don’t often need to be watered. If the leaves are wilting noticeably, then they may need additional water.
Planting can be propagated by direct seeding or transplanting. The seeds should be planted about 1-2 inch deep in the soil. Transplants can be done when 2-3 leaves develop and should be done in such a way as to avoid disturbance to the root system. The plants require a lot of space to grow and should be placed at a distance of 3 to 4 feet apart in rows. Place poles of any wood or bamboo 2m high as support and give wire or twine supports in rows. The plant requires only little water but regular watering is essential. Too much water during flowering and fruition is harmful to the plant.
The small seedlings grow very slowly while the roots become established. Once they are about 6 inches(15cm) tall the increase in growth rate is phenomenal. Flowering and fruition will occur around 6 weeks after sowing. The flowers bloom in an orderly progression, one at a time.
When the flowers get pollinated, slender cucumber-like vegetables appear. The fruits stay soft until the skin thickens. Then the fiber forms. The vines continue to grow and produce fruit until the sponges begin to mature. They can be harvested whenever they feel ready. The earlier ones can be picked while the vine is still growing. Typically they turn a yellow/brown color and become lighter in weight from drying out. Mature luffa pods can be any color from green to nearly black. Very small sponges can be mature and very large ones may not be ready. Size and color doesn’t matter much. The important thing is that they start to dry and lose weight. The more mature they are, the better the sponge fiber quality. Some smaller ones may mature more quickly, yielding a small soft sponge, good for washing delicate skin.
Problems and Care
Prune all side shoots on the main stem till about 1 meter from the ground. Less the number of fruits, more will be the size of the fruit.
Angled loofah is susceptible to many diseases and insect pests, such as nematodes, viruses, powdery mildew, leaf miners and spider mites. The major insect pests are fruit flies and aphids. Powdery mildew can be controlled by applying benomyl or sulfur dust. Fruit flies can be sprayed with protein hydrolysate mixed with insecticide. Leaf feeding beetles can be controlled by spraying with carbaryl of endosulfan. The insects can also be controlled by wrapping fruits with newspapers, when they are about a few centimeters long.
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sources: wisegeek.com, luffa.info, en.wikipedia.org, webindia123.com