Category: Medicines - plant based
Introduction and description
Luffa, also spelled loofah, is a genus of tropical and subtropical vines in the cucumber (Cucurbitaceae) family. The name luffa was taken by European botanists in the 17th century from the Egyptian Arabic name لوف lūf. There are three species
- Luffa acutangula (Angled luffa, ridged luffa, vegetable gourd)
- Luffa aegyptiaca / Luffa cylindrica (Smooth luffa, Egyptian luffa, dishrag gourd, gourd loofa)
- Luffa operculata (Wild loofa, sponge cucumber)
For many people in western cultures, the luffa conjures up images of the strange fibrous object that is used in the bath as a good scrubbing sponge, they make very good back scrubbers, but in the countries in which the loofah is grown it is also eaten as a vegetable. It is as fibrous as a vegetable, as it is as a sponge if it is fully ripe, so for culinary uses it is harvested when very young.
In order to make the sponges, the fruit is allowed to fully mature on the vine until they have turned brown and their stems have turned yellow. If the loofah is allowed to fully ripen and then dry out on the vine, the flesh disappears leaving only the fibrous skeleton and seeds. Once the loofah outer skin is dry and brown, it is peeled and the seeds are shaken out. The seeds are saved because an edible oil can pressed from them.
The dry loofahs can be soaked in water for a few days to make it easier to peel off the skin, but this may affect the seeds, making it more difficult to extract the oil.
Although we tend to think of loofahs as a bath brush, they are also potentially good pan scrubbers and make good filters. Even with regular use, loofah sponges last for months, rubbing bodies or dishes, but they do eventually wear out and need to be replaced. This said, the luffa is a far more eco-friendly scrubber than the plastic variety and it is from a sustainable source.
As it says in the literature “Experience exquisite epidermal exfoliative excitement courtesy of a dried loofah gourd - the vegetable super sponge!”
The potential uses of this plant are really only now beginning to be explored. In Paraguay, panels are made out of luffa combined with other vegetable matter and recycled plastic. These are being used to create furniture and construct houses.
The loofah is a rampant, fast growing annual vine. The vine can get more than 30 ft (9 m) long and scrambles over anything in its path. The large leaves are lobed and have silvery patches on the topsides. . Luffa are not frost-hardy, and require 150 to 200 warm days to mature.
Smooth luffa (Luffa aegyptiaca) produces pretty yellow flowers which are both showy and conspicuous, about 2-3 in (5-7.6 cm) across with five petals.
The fruits are green, up to 24 in (61 cm) long and 3 in (7.6 cm) in diameter; they are cylindrical and smooth, and shaped like a club, slighter wider on one end. Small fruits look like okra or little cucumbers. On older fruits, the outer skin eventually dries and turns brown and papery.
Ridged loofah (Luffa acutangula), or "vine okra", is a similar species which has white flowers and produces gourds that are ridged with ten angles.
Vine okra is harder to peel for the sponge, but in the southern U.S. at least, it is more popular as a food crop. Both species of Luffa are very popular vegetables in China.
Luffas can be found growing commercially worldwide. Smooth loofah, Luffa aegyptiaca, is probably native to tropical Africa and Asia. It is grown throughout most of Asia for food and for pot scrubbers, and is cultivated commercially in the United States for export to Japan.
The plant name "Luffa" was introduced to Western botany nomenclature by the botanist Johann Vesling (died 1649), who visited Egypt in the late 1620s and described the plant under cultivation with artificial irrigation in Egypt. In 1706 the botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort introduced the formal botany genus name "Luffa".
Tournefort referred to Veslingius's earlier description and reiterated that ‘"Luffa Arabum" is a plant from Egypt in the cucumber family’. In establishing the Luffa genus, Tournefort identified just one member species and called it "Luffa Arabum". His 1706 article includes detailed drawings of this species (which is now called Luffa aegyptiaca.
The botanist Peter Forsskål visited Egypt in the early 1760s and noted that it was called لوف lūf in Arabic.
In the 18th century the botanist Linnaeus adopted the name luffa for this species but assigned it to the Momordica genus.
Loofahs grow like weeds. They need little more than a sunny spot and something to climb on. They need plenty of water, especially when the fruits are developing and thrive in full sun. Hardiness: USDA Zones 7 - 10.
Once the vines get 6-10 ft (1.8-3 m) long, they start producing male flowers. Usually within a few more days they start producing female flowers which are recognizable by the enlarged ovary at the base of the petals. The ovary will become the fruit if the flower gets pollinated.
Loofah is an annual that needs a long growing season to produce mature fruits. Gourds can be expected to mature around four months after planting. Immature gourds, for food, can be harvested within three months. If you don't have at least four months of warm weather, sow your loofah seeds indoors to give them a head start. (Like other members of the squash family, loofahs resent transplanting, so start your seeds in peat pots so later you can move them outside without disturbing the roots.)
Propagation: Loofahs are easy to grow from seed. You can speed up germination by soaking the seeds in water overnight before sowing.
Given the extensive use of loofahs in cooking they could equally well have been placed under the food heading. The medicinal uses are well known, however, and this is why we placed the plant here.
In cooking, the immature fruits, 3-6 in (7.6-15 cm) in length, can be stir-fried whole or sliced, or they can be grated and used in soups and omelets. They are used extensively in curries. Larger fruits that are 4-6 in (10-15 cm) in length are peeled because the skin becomes bitter.
In addition to the immature fruits, the Chinese also eat the young shoots, leaves and flower buds. In fact, fried gourd flowers are quite a delicacy, and the raw flowers are ‘a nice addition to tossed salads’. The flowers can be used much as zucchini/courgette flowers are used – for example fried in a tempura batter.
- In Vietnam, the gourd is called "mướp hương" and is a common ingredient in soups and stir-fried dishes.
- In Tamil Nadu, the gourd is called Peerkangai and used as a vegetable to make Peerkangai kootu, poriyal, thogayal. Even the skin is used to make chutney.
- In Karnataka's Malenadu (Western Ghats) it is known as tuppadahirekayi, which literally translates as "buttersquash". It grows naturally in this region and is consumed when it is still tender and green. It used as a vegetable in curries, but also as a snack, bhajji, dipped in chickpea batter and deep fried.
- In Andhra Pradesh, it is called nethi beerakaya. And in Assam it is called "jeeka". It is used as a vegetable in a curry, chutney and stir fry.
- In Kerala, it is called peechinga. It is used as a vegetable, cooked with dal or stir fried.
- In Mahtra, India, dodka (ridge gourd luffa) and ghosavala (smooth luffa) are common vegetables prepared with either crushed dried peanuts or with beans.
In China, Indonesia (where it is called Sigua or oyong), the Philippines (where it is called patola) and Manipur, India, (where it is called sebot) the luffa is eaten as a green vegetable in various dishes. It is also known as "Chinese okra" in Canada. In Spanish, it is called an estropajo.
As you will see from Dr Duke’s analysis, the plant has considerable potential as a medicinal food. It is rich in Vitamin C and also has a reasonable supply of minerals.
There is also research still awaiting on some chemicals that at present have no known activity. The seed in particular deserves far more analysis. The Oleanolic acid known to be in the seed has extensive useful activity being for example, Antiarrhythmic , Antibacterial, Anticarcinomic, Antigingivitic, AntiHIV, Antiinflammatory, Antimalarial and Antiplasmodial!
Even when young, the fruit has a considerable amount of fibre, but this makes it a natural laxative with a perhaps less harsh profile than bran. There is some quite helpful activity in combatting a number of skin diseases – acne, eczema, alopecia etc.
The observations provide more detail.
- Dr Duke's list of Chemicals and their Biological Activities in: Luffa aegyptiaca MILLER (Cucurbitaceae) -- Luffa, Smooth Loofah, Vegetable Sponge 019903
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antianxiety activity 018342
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antidote (Aluminum) Activity of high potency 018327
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antidote (Lead) activity 018377
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antilupus activity 018440
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antiosteoporotic activity 018449
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antipapillomic Activity of high potency 018898
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with AntiPMS Activity 018419
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antipolyneuritic activity 022051
- In vitro antimicrobial activity of Luffa operculata 019900