Sow the seed and let this generous vine offer you soothing shade in the garden to meditate under, an abundance of fruit to nourish your body, a stunning display of large green leaves to feast your eyes upon, vibrant yellow flowers that brighten up your soul and a sponge to wash dishes or for a gentle scrub during a bath.
You might know it as Tori, Turrai or the sponge gourd while in the others parts of the world it has different names. In Nepal, they call it Ghiraula, in the Philippines it is called Patola, in China and Indonesia it is Sigua or oyong and it is popular as Hechima in Japan. Peechinga, beerakaya, dodka, ghosavala and zika are just a few other names by which this versatile vegetable is known in different parts of India and Pakistan. However, the name Luffa or Loofah was derived from ’luf’ in Arabic which was the name given by Egyptian farmers to this crop. Johann Vesling (died 1649), a German botanist visited Egypt in the 1620s and introduced the new name to Western botanical nomenclature.
Perhaps the reason for its widespread cultivation and popularity is its overwhelming health benefits. Just one cup of Luffa contains 66% of our daily requirement of Vitamin A, which is essential for bone growth, a healthy immune system, reproduction, skin and eyes! This vegetable is not only rich in vitamin A but also in Vitamin C. Being rich in Vitamin B complex, especially B5, it also helps maintain a healthy nervous system and liver. It also prevents hair loss, stress and anxiety besides many more health benefits. Luffa is especially good to prevent type-2 diabetes because it offers good amount of magnesium, an essential mineral for the glucose metabolism.
All this goodness is best served and enjoyed when it comes fresh from an organic source. What could be better than growing this humble and healthy vine in your own home?
Luffa prefers soil that is well drained and rich in organic material. Plant seeds directly into the soil during early spring, if you’re growing it in places where it gets very cold in winters. In Karachi, I plant this vine throughout the year, even in winters. For a fall harvest, I plant the vines during the monsoon or in early August. For a spring harvest I sow seeds in October, when it is hot enough for the seeds to germinate. I sow my next batch in February, when it has started to get hot again. Seeds planted in scorching May and June will also grow without failure. The idea is to replant seeds somewhere in the mid-life of the older vine to get a continuous supply throughout the year!
What seeds to use
Select an heirloom or open pollinated luffa variety. Although the colour and size of luffa varies around the world, there are generally two types: smooth luffa and ridge luffa.
Source your seed from a friend or a relative who grows luffa, buy from a garden store or ask around on social media gardening groups. You might find a generous farmer who is willing to send you some free heirloom seeds!
Prepare an 18-inch pot or your ground by adding a 50-50 mixture of soil and well rotted manure (ideally organic) or organic compost to make a basic soil mix. This seems to be enough for this easy-to-grow vine that need little attention. But an additional supply of natural or organic potassium and phosphorus fertiliser will encourage even better growth.
Sow a couple of seeds in a group: 1 inch deep and at least 5 feet apart. Three to four seeds in an 18-inch pot will be enough. You can thin it so as to have one strong plant later.
Water well and use dried hay or straw to mulch in summers. This will help retain moisture in the heat.
Add a thin layer of organic compost or manure every 15 days – or use compost tea or liquid organic fertilisers for potted plants.
Pinch off new growth once the vine reaches 10 feet in height. This will encourage new branches – which means a lot more vegetables. Repeat this once the new branches are big.
The Luffa vine will quickly grow and spread its branches all around. It is best to have a plan to train it over a bamboo arch, on a trellis or a pergola – or to simply tie a rope on a wall and let it find its own way. Keep the fruit lifted from the soil to avoid rot and disease. Although the vine is trouble-free and hardly invites any bad bugs, if you do find it under attack, use natural ways to combat the problem.
The stunning bright yellow flowers with large petals not only create a beautiful contrast with the deep green leaves but also attract bees all day long. Once these beautiful flowers begin to bloom, you will find all types of bees hovering over it. This is one of Nature’s wise ways of turning those flowers into fruit.
Luffa vines produce male and female flowers. The male flower stalk has multiple buds which open one after the other, providing pollen to fertilise the female flowers all season long. The female flower has a little fruit attached to it. Our tiny pollinator friends stay busy from dawn till the afternoon to supply pollen from one flower to another. Their efforts turn flowers into fruits for us, whilst they partake of the sweet nectar.
Harvest , eat and store
Pick your gourds when they are young and not too swollen with fibre. The vegetable usually grows up to 18 inches long and I find it tastes best when it is 2 inches thick. Cut the stalk attached with the vegetable gently.
Wash it well and use a peeler to peel off the skin. I feel nostalgic when I think of Turrai. The taste and smell of ‘turrai ki bhujiya’ that my mother makes takes over my senses.
Of course there are so many more ways to cook this versatile vegetable. Turn it into a bhaji, a curry, a pakora or cook it with lentils, meat or eggs. In East Asian countries, luffa is used in soups also.
Store your extra harvest by washing, drying well and wrapping individual vegetables in brown paper and then refrigerating for up to a week.
The organic Back Scrubber
To make your very own homegrown organic back scrubber, just let a few vegetables grow until they swell with fibre and eventually turn brown, hollow and light in weight. Cut it off from the vine and remove the brown skin, which will crack and come out easily, revealing the magical scrubber inside.
This incredible overgrown dry vegetable not only gives you a back scrubber or a sponge but also stores some highly productive seeds in it! Make a little hole at one end and shake the luffa to take out the seeds. Store them in a sterilised dry glass jar and keep it in a dark cabinet. Now that you have your own seeds, it is time for you to share them with others. It is a very good idea to sow the vines in slums and areas where the roofs need to be cooled in summer.
I feel that there are so many lessons of life to be learned from this gracious vine. The secrets will be unveiled in front of you, once you plant a seed with all your heart, visit it often, sit under its shade, enjoy its fruits and, most importantly: share!
Zahra Ali is a sustainability educator, writer and environmentalist. She blogs at cropsinpots.pk. Send in questions about gardening to Zahra@cropsinpots.pk