What do you think a loofah is, and where does it come from?
Chances are, you probably answered that it is a sea sponge, grown underwater somewhere in the ocean. This is by far the most frequent, and widely believed answer! So, while you’re in good company, you would be incorrect. The belief that Loofah are a sea sponge likely stems from their coarse, spongy texture. But in fact, Loofah (or Luffa, as it is botanically known) is a vine-grown member of the gourd family. Yep, that’s right…a Loofah is more similar to a cucumber than a piece of coral! Crazy, right?
The finished Loofah product is formed from dried fiber of the vegetable itself. Luffa aegyptiaca (hereby referred to by the common name, Loofah, for clarity) was brought to North America by European settlers, who planned to domesticate it upon arrival. While a few varieties are edible, they were raised primarily for their value as sponges. Over time though, the practice of growing loofah became less common, as synthetic and plastic products made their way into the market. As the plant itself faded in popularity, misconceptions began to abound, such as the belief that loofah are pieces of coral or sea sponge. Today, they are a unique but underutilized vegetable!
Once we discovered this amazing plant, we were intrigued, and knew we had to learn more about growing our own natural exfoliators here on The Hill. As our customers know, all of our products are designed around our all-natural philosophy, so we knew that natural loofah would make a great companion to our goat milk soap and skincare products. So, three years ago, we established a loofah garden here on The Hill – one that is growing and thriving today! Over the years we have raised loofah, we have continued to refine and adapt our process as we learn more about these unique plants. One of the greatest challenges to raising loofah is the very long growing season and warm temperatures they require. Because of this, most natural loofah are actually grown in tropical climates, where the weather is ideal for many months of the year. To manage this long season, our annual loofah journey begins indoors, in very early spring.
It all starts with loofah seeds! We save the seeds from our harvest each year, so there is always plenty on hand for next year’s crop. They are carefully planted into individual pots, watered, and placed under lights that provide artificial sunlight to help them grow. Then, we wait for the magic to happen! 7-10 days later, the tiny plants begin to emerge.
As the seedlings turn to young plants, they live indoors under their lights until the weather is favorable enough to get them outside. Usually, we wait until the days are reliably in the high 50’s or low 60’s, with no chance of frost. But to keep the plants healthy and give them their best shot, we don’t immediately pluck them from the safety of the indoors and right into the ground. Instead, we slowly introduce them to the outdoor climate. This process, known as “hardening off”, helps prepare the plants for the growing conditions outdoors and prevents shocking the seedlings when they go in the ground. Shock could cause the plants to struggle or become unhealthy, making them vulnerable to disease – so this slow exposure to the outdoors gives them the best chance to thrive. Over the course of a week or so, we move the plants outside each day, exposing them to natural light, wind, and outdoor temperatures. At first, they spend just a couple hours outside, but by the end of the week, they are spending a full day soaking up the sun. Once they can handle this, we know they are ready to plant!
Once the plants are ready and the garden is dry (sometimes rain delays our plans!), it’s time to plant! We start the loofah seeds in compostable pots, so planting is easy – the entire plant and pot go into the ground. As a bonus, when the pot begins to break down, it provides fertilizer for the plants. Between that, increasingly warm weather as spring turns into summer, and lots of TLC, all the loofah plants have to do now is grow! If you’ve ever grown cucumbers or other plants with vines at home, you know they become a tangled mess without a trellis. As the vines grow longer and taller, we begin to construct a trellis tunnel for the vines to grow up. This keeps everything nice and neat, so when the plants begin to flower and produce loofah, they are easy to spot! Plus, it looks pretty cool 😊
By mid-summer, hundreds of tiny loofah begin to form from the little yellow flowers covering the vines. This is by far the most fun part of their lifecycle! As the gourds grow, they dangle randomly from the trellis, almost like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. By September or October, all the gourds are ready to harvest. We allow the plants to continue to grow until the risk of frost is in the forecast, which signals the time to harvest. Frost will damage the loofah, so it is important to get them off the vine and into the safety of the indoors before a freeze. Picking them is fun and easy! Then, they are whisked inside to dry.
You might think that after 7 months of growth, the gourds are ready to become loofah. But no! Once harvested, they require another 3-4 months to fully dry. A loofah is made up of dried fibers from the gourd, so they need plenty of time to dry in order to reach the desired result. So once again, we wait – hanging the loofah up indoors to dry throughout the winter.
By late winter (typically February or early March), the loofah are ready for their final step. Now dried, we carefully peel back their layers to reveal the dried fibers. Next, we shake out the seeds, and carefully clean them to remove any remaining peel. Some folks also bleach the loofah at this time, to achieve a perfectly white final product, but we prefer not to. We like the natural, beigey color of the loofah. Finally, after nearly a year from start to finish, we have natural loofah!
As you can see, raising natural loofah is not for the faint of heart! It’s a long, sometimes arduous process that above all, requires lots of patience. Between all the fun of starting seeds, planting, harvesting, and peeling, there is a lot of waiting, watering, and weeding in between. But it’s a process we enjoy, and we think the work is worth it! We absolutely love the natural loofah in our products and on its own. Combined with our goat milk soap, it makes for an unbeatable combination of gentle exfoliation and luxurious soap...but producing the loofah here on The Hill makes the whole thing just a little more special for us 😊
Until next time,
Madd House Hill
PS: Loofah also make great kitchen sink sponges!