Terry L. Moss had a laugh over luffa when what he thought was a melon plant actually yielded the Asian cucumber.
Last fall, Moss, who works with the blind, planted into his plot at the Benedictine Monastery Garden two tiny Persian melon plants that a fellow gardener gave him.
He didn’t realize at the time that the space for the melons in the garden run by Community Gardens of Tucson was already occupied. “I’d forgotten that I had some luffa seeds that I bought,” Moss says.
“All of a sudden these plants started growing, just started like taking over,” Moss says of what he thought were vines for the melons.
To an untrained eye like his, the leaves of the melon and the luffa — loofah is the sponge-like bath accessory that comes from the plant — look pretty much alike.
And since he doesn’t label his plantings, Moss was still in the dark about what actually was growing.
“When the first blossom came I realized it wasn’t a Persian melon,” he recalls.
Because of the mild winter last season, the luffas happily grew, overrunning the string trellis and wanting to spread into other community gardeners’ plots. They also covered his eggplant and basil, although they ultimately survived the onslaught. Moss regularly hacked away to keep the plant out of other plots, he says.
The yellow flowers attracted bees that ended up pollinating other plants in the garden, so Moss feels that made up for the plants’ unruly growth.
The lush luffa became quite the attraction and Moss says he loved telling the story of the mistaken vine. “People would come just to see it,” Moss says.
Variously known as Chinese okra and Vietnamese gourd, among other names, the immature fruit can be eaten. Once they get longer than about four inches, they get too fibrous to eat, Moss says.
He picked only about a dozen young fruit for eating. He ended up harvesting 230 mature luffas.
“Once they are mature, you let them dry and you peel the crusty skin off and that’s what produces the loofah sponge,” he explains.
He figures everyone he knows and their friends will have a new loofah sponge once he’s through distributing them.
The luffas are gone from Moss’ community garden plot to make way for summer crops.
Because the luffa is a dense grower, Moss plans to plant some at his home to cover a wall. It also will provide shade for plants and people. And his chickens love eating the cuttings.
Oh, and the Persian melons? They never did come up.