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Davis, J.M. and C.D. DeCourley. 1993. Luffa sponge gourds: A potential crop for small farms. p. 560-561. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), New crops. Wiley, New York.

Luffa Sponge Gourds: A Potential Crop for Small Farms

Jeanine M. Davis and Charles D. DeCourley


  1. PRODUCTION
  2. MARKETING
  3. CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
  4. Table 1
  5. Fig. 1

The fibrous interiors of fruits from the luffa sponge gourd (Luffa aegyptiaca Mill.) are used primarily as bath sponges but also as pot scrubbers, filters, packing material, and for making crafts. Currently, almost all luffa used in the United States is imported from Taiwan, China, Korea, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Venezuela, and Columbia. C.D. DeCourley conducted a survey of wholesale luffa buyers that revealed that luffa is imported as a raw dried product and as finished products such as bath mitts. Luffa sales are reported in inches. The survey showed that over 10 million inches (25 x 106 cm) of raw luffa, with a wholesale value of over $0.5 million, are imported each year. Approximately 9 million inches (23 x 106 cm) are imported as luffa products. These value added products have a retail value of over $4 million. Changing economic conditions and an increasing demand for luffa products, however, have also created the potential for viable domestic production.

Luffa is closely related to cucumber and has similar cultural requirements. It is a tropical plant, however, which requires a longer growing season than most cucurbits grown in North America. The objective of this study was to develop a production system for luffa grown in the temperate climates of North Carolina and Missouri.

PRODUCTION

Planting date, planting method, in-row spacing and pruning were studied in western North Carolina. In 1989, three planting dates (May 29, June 12, and June 26) and two planting methods (direct seeding vs. transplanting) were examined. Plants were trained to a single-curtain trellis and grown on raised beds with black plastic mulch and drip irrigation. Rows were spaced 1.5 m apart and plants were spaced 45.7 cm apart in the row. Highest yields, earliest maturity, and largest sponges were obtained when plants were transplanted and set early (Table 1). In 1990, three in-row spacings (31, 61, and 91 cm) and three pruning treatments (no pruning, removing the first four laterals, and topping the main stem at node 6) were examined. Plants were grown on trellises with rows spaced 1.5 m apart. The highest yields of marketable gourds were obtained when plants were spaced 31 cm apart in the row and the first four laterals were removed (Fig. 1). Although this treatment did not provide the largest gourds, there was no difference in yields of gourds in the size category most requested by buyers, i.e., gourds 31 to 61 cm long and 7.5 to 10 cm in diameter.

Trellis systems and seed sources were also studied in Missouri. To produce straight, well-formed, disease-free gourds, luffa must be grown on a trellis. A sturdy trellis that permits good light penetration and air circulation is required. In 1990, three trellis systems were evaluated; a single curtain system, the Geneva double curtain (three wires formed a "V" at the top of the trellis) and the Lincoln system (four wires across the top of "T" posts). The Lincoln system was preferred because it provided the best support; the fruit hung free beneath the vines, resulting in a high percentage of straight fruit with few blemishes; and the fruit matured early.

Commercially available luffa seeds are rarely identified by cultivar, making it difficult to obtain seed that will produce gourds with desired characteristics. In 1990, seeds from 20 sources were grown. Days to maturity, yields, gourd size, and fiber quality varied considerably between seed lots. Number of gourds per plant ranged from 3.5 to 20. Average gourd length varied from 48 to 79 cm and the diameter from 7 to 11 cm. Days from fruit set to fruit maturity ranged from 53 to 88 days and was highly variable within each seed lot. Because luffa is open pollinated and crosses easily, further trials must be conducted on the seed collected from the most promising selections to determine if the quality can be maintained from year to year.

The skin, pulp, and seeds must be removed from the gourds before marketing. The skin and pulp are removed by soaking the gourds in water. The skins are easiest to remove from gourds that are mature when they begin to dry. An effective method for removing seeds is to shake them out manually. This method, however, is labor intensive and time-consuming. If a light colored sponge is desired, cleaned sponges may be soaked briefly in a 10% bleach solution.

MARKETING

Sponges with different fiber densities and textures are required for making different products. A subjective grading system with five grades based on fiber density, texture, and appearance was developed by C.D. DeCourley to assist buyers, growers, and researchers. J.M. Davis used an AgVision monochrome system (Decagon Devices, Inc., Pullman, WA) to provide a quantitative evaluation. AgVision is a computer controlled video system designed for digital image analysis. Using this system, the area occupied by fibers in a 50 cm2 section of the outer wall of a luffa sponge was determined. Sponge samples from the seed source trials in Missouri were evaluated by three luffa buyers from the cosmetic industry and three researchers. In general, the buyers gave the samples lower quality ratings than did the researchers. All samples with a poor subjective rating also had a low rating with the AgVision system. A better grading system needs to be developed for both industry and research use.

The largest market for luffa is the cosmetic industry which uses luffa in various bath and cosmetic products. A small market for luffa sponges also exists at farmers' markets, gift shops, and to crafters. Wholesale buyers of luffa have indicated a willingness to purchase domestically grown luffa if the quality and prices are competitive with the imported product and the supply is consistent.

CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Luffa gourds could be a new crop for a few American growers. Companies currently importing luffa are interested in domestic production. The known market will only support about 20 to 30 ha, but wholesale buyers indicate that demand is increasing. Presently, it is not known if high quality luffa can be produced at a price that is competitive with imported luffa. Before doing an economic feasibility study, a reliable production system needs to be developed. Based on the research and demonstrations conducted in North Carolina and Missouri, we currently recommend that growers start small and have a marketing plan before planting. Fertilizer recommendations for trellised cucumbers and pest control for gourds should be followed until specific studies on luffa are conducted. Seed should be obtained from sponges that are the quality desired by the buyer. Four to five week old transplants should be planted as soon after the last frost as possible. Plants should be spaced 31 cm apart in the row and the first four laterals removed. Irrigation is essential and mulch beneficial. A sturdy trellis is needed, preferably one that will allow the gourds to hang free. One or two bee hives should be placed near the field. Gourds should be removed from the field as soon as they are dry.
Table 1. Influence of planting date and planting method on yield and size of luffa gourds.

No. gourds/ha x 103 Fruit size (cm)
Planting date Planting method 1st harvest Total harvest Length Diameter
May 29 Transplant 46.8 91.2 36.6 8.4
June 12 Transplant 32.8 81.8 36.0 8.3
June 26 Transplant 20.7 74.5 35.1 7.6
May 29 Direct seed 20.7 74.0 36.6 8.2
June 12 Direct seed 11.0 67.0 35.4 7.4
June 26 Direct seed 4.6 63.0 34.4 7.2
There is no significant difference in sponge length. Main effect differences (planting date and planting method) for yield and diameter are significant at P = 0.01. Interactions were not significant.



Fig. 1. Influence of spacing and pruning on luffa gourd yields.
Last update September 17, 1997 aw