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You may use the luffa gourd plant for decor, salads, or -- a dishrag

A few years ago a friend sent me a few seeds of the luffa gourd. Never having given this plant more than two seconds of thought, probably because it also is called the "dishrag" gourd, I didn't consider it actually a garden plant at all. Also, no one had ever suggested to me that any part of it was edible.

After picking up some seeds, reading up on this exotic denizen of the tropics was next in order.

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It soon became evident we had been by- passing something special.I hurried to plant the seeds along the back of the garden where they could trail on the fence.

But then, with the business of a rapidly burgeoning spring garden and its many demands, I was forced to leave the seeds to fend for themselves.

Meantime, a wild white clematis started up on that fence; and tall marigolds, which I encourage, came along as well. Together, they hid the fence completely and, I must admit, I forgot about the luffa.

Later on in the summer someone noticed various sizes of club-shaped fruits hanging on the fence in a tangle with the clematis and marigolds. When I investigated I found the luffa had made its place in the garden with about 30 feet of vine. Happily, we were able to enjoy sampling the fruits in all stages of its growth.

Although the luffa (L. cylindrical,m whose fruits grow up to 20 inches in length, and L. acutangula,m a shorter gourd about 12 inches long) is an annual, and genus of the tropical cucurbitaceaem (gourd) family, it goes by descriptive local names, such as towel plant, vegetable sponge, and, of course, dishrag or dishcloth gourd.

This is because inside its thin papery skin is a fibrous roll (seeds are inside this roll) that, when allowed to mature, can be turned into many useful articles, such as pot holders, back scrubbers, various mats and small rugs, dishmops, gloves, sandals, and for stuffing toys and pillows.

The fibers have been used commercially to make filters for machinery, and in ancient times the plant in some form was used as a medicine. Oil extracted from the seeds is said to be of a quality comparable to olive oil.

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The name luffam is a Latinized version of the Arabic name; while in China it's called cee gwam -- Chinese okra. In England they cry "loofah!" when calling for a back scrubber.

While many people know the vegetable sponge, few even guess how versatile and useful the plant is as a food.For instance, while the fruits, leaves, and even buds and flowers are still young and tender, they are delicious when cut up or sliced and added to the salad bowl.

Until the fruits begin to mature and the inside fibers harden, they are great added to stews and soups, or simply used as a vegetable with butter and seasoning.

The luffa, which originated in the tropics, seems to thrive just as well in temperate zones although it does require warm soil. It does not transplant well , so either plant it in peat pots early or wait until the garden is warm to plant outside. In fact, the only demands made by this remarkable plant is plenty of warmth, rich humusy soil, and a trellis or fence on which to climb.

The vines will bear as many as 25 gourds to the vine and each mature fruit may weigh as much as five or six pounds.

The impressive gourds grow fast and usually will be cured before frost. If it doesn't make it in the time it has before the first frost, bring it inside to finish drying out in the warm house.

In order to have the best growth, it is advised to pinch off the first flowers.

If, after you've sampled the immature fruits for salad or cooking, then wish to try out some of the craft ideas as well by using the dry inner fibers, just allow these last fruits to hang in the garden and dry on the vine until they turn brown.

Now pick and finish the drying process in the sun for four or five days, turning often. soak in water until the skin peels off easily.

Slit the dry fibrous inner filling and shake out the black seeds and save them for planting next year's exotic crop. Wash the fiber in hot soapy water before using.

The natural color is pleasant, but if you wish you can soak it in household bleach (1 tablespoon to a quart of water) or hang it up i n bright sunlight until it develops the shade you like.

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