4 minute read

Trees bees use - The loofah

by Jorge Murillo-Yepes, B&D's Correspondent in Grenada

First of all we admit the loofah is not a tree: it is a fast growing, annual, climbing plant with tendrils that grab out eagerly for support. However it can be as big as a tree, up to 30 metres!

APICULTURAL VALUE

Female flowers are moderate to good nectar suppliers; male blooms yield a good pollen value. The loofah’s profuse and continuous blossoming during rainy periods provides excellent bee colony build-up and maintenance forage. Recommended for planting to increase honey production.

MOST POPULAR SPECIES

Ridged loofah Luffa acutangula

Common loofah Luffa cylindrica (L) Roem

ANONYMS

Common loofah:

Luffa aegyptiaca, Poppia fabiana

NAMES

Loofah, luffa, Chinese loofah, vegetable sponge, dishcloth gourd

Jinghi, tochon (West Indies)

Estopajo, coladera, meocoton, calabazo, quingombe (Latin America)

Schwammkuerbis (German)

Petole (French)

Bucha dos pautistas (Brazil)

Soo-qua (Chinese)

Hechma (Japanese)

FAMILY

Cucurbitaceae

DISTRIBUTION

A native of the Asian tropics, loofah is found throughout warm tropical, sup-tropical and temperate areas.

USES

Widely utilised as handy bath accessories, skin exfoliators and pot scrubbers, loofah offers a renewable alternative to the endangered sea sponge. During World War Ii the durable fibre was used in surgical operations, as a filter in the Navy’s steam and diesel engines, as cushioning in vehicle and tank seats and because of its insulating properties, in Army helmet linings. Loofah gourds can also be processed into pot holders, doormats, gloves, sandals, caps, hats, waistcoats, stuffing for mattresses and saddles and have many other uses. Loofah readily takes dyes and can be embroidered for the crafting of decorated bags, place mats and garments. This versatile plant has served for hundreds of years as a healing agent. Loofah seeds are emetic and purgative, and the leaves are used by the Chinese in a treatment for skin diseases. In Japan a preparation made from loofah is sold as a skin softener. According to a sixteenth century Chinese herbalist, “The fresh fruit is considered to be cooling and beneficial to the intestines”.

In many parts of the tropical world, young loofah gourds (less than 10 cm long) are harvested for culinary purposes. The ridged loofah is considered the tastiest of all, as the common and other varieties occasionally develop a bitter taste. Tender loofah fruits can be added raw to salads or cut up in soups in the same way as okra. The real gastronomic utility for this vegetable ties in its ability to substitute for zucchini or squash, or for egg plant in parmigiana. In Japan, one of the world’s biggest producers and consumers, the fruit is sliced and sun-dried. In India the gourds are popular in curries, while Malaysians relish the young leaves, raw, and the Annamese people of China like to eat the male flowers and flower buds. The blooms can be dipped and sautéed. Jams and jellies are prepared with the flowers.

A good quality oil can be extracted from the seeds to be used in the manufacture of cosmetics and medicines.

LEAVES

Deep green foliage, composed of large, hirsute, long petioled leaves with seven paimeated lobes.

FLOWERS

Large (up to 12 cm in diameter), lemon yellow, with five spreading petals. The female flowers of this monoecious plants (both male and female blooms on the same vine) develop singly on the plants stem, while their male counterparts grow in dangling bunches. After pollination the male flowers drop, while the females remain attached to the developing fruit.

FRUITS

Once pollinated the vegetables rush toward maturity, growing at a rate of up to 4cm a day. When dried and peeled the mature, gourd-like fruit reveals a fibrous, spongy skeleton, filled with rows of black seeds. Some Luffa cylindrica varieties produce vegetable sponges 80cm in length and 25 cm diameter.

FLOWERING

Copious blossoming through rainy periods and under irrigation. Luffa acutangula’s flowers unfurl in the evening, while those of Luffa cylindrica open to the rays of the morning sun.

HONEY

Light amber, slightly aromatic.

PRACTICAL NOTES

A sturdy plant which is easily grown, even on poor soils. Loofah does not tolerate sustained temperatures below 18°C. Relatively resistant to mildew. The seeds remain viable for several years when stored under dry conditions.

References

Crane,E; Walker,P (1984) Pollination Directory for World Crops. BRA, London, UK.

Crane,E; Walker,P; Day,R (1984) Directory ofImportant World Honey Sources. IBRA, London, UK.

Kelly,C; Shobe,J (1981) For Luffa or Money! The Mother Earth News Magazine 68: pp 126-127.

Laurence,G A (1976) Common Bee Weeds of Trinidad and Tobago.

Little,E L; Wadworth,F H (1964) Common Trees of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Peace Corps(1983) Important Honey Plants of the Tropics. Peace Corps, Washington DC, USA.

PEREZ-ARBELAEZ,E (1990) Plantas Utiles de Colombia.

USDA (1964) Handbook 249, Volume 1.

USDA (1974) Handbook No 449, Volume 2.

Like some loofahs?

Jorge has kindly provided some loofah seeds to Bees for Development.

Write in if you would like a few.

Available only while stocks last!