"A luffa is a plant with an attitude." That's the statement that Deanne starts off with on the tour of The Luffa Farm in Nipomo. She says this with conviction and repeats it. "A luffa is a plant with an attitude, not unlike an orchid," she explains. "You know how it is with orchids. They don't do what you expect.” It seems luffas are like that too. Of course for most people finding out that they are a plant and not a sea creature is their first surprise. "But they're sponges, right?" That's what Deanne and her family hears over and over.
There was a time when Deane didn't know what a luffa was. Her introduction came from receiving a bunch of seeds from a college professor when she lived in the Bay area some years ago. She and other members of her family took the seeds but had no idea what they were. "We all thought they might be watermelon seeds," she says as she tells the story. "We went to the library and we looked through books to try and find out what they were." Finally deciding that they were some kind of Chinese cucumber plant, each family member planted the seeds in their gardens.
Deane's sister was thought to be the one with the green thumb, but her plants came up and then withered and rotted away. For some reason Deane decided to plant hers up against some fencing and as they grew she attached fishing line to the fence, the vines took to them, and the gourds began to form. Then she forgot about them. Some time passed and when she did finally check on the plants she found that the gourds had turned brown, dried out, and appeared dead. She picked one, heard the seeds rattling inside, peeled off the outer skin, and behold, there was a luffa. This began her long journey as a luffa farmer.
Nowadays Deane grows her plants in pots in two large greenhouses. "I tried growing them here in the ground but the gophers just attacked them," she says, "then when the afternoon winds came up, as they do in Nipomo, it blew the blossoms right off the plants. No blossoms, no luffas."
The luffa gourd develops at the base of the flower. They grow down at one-half inch a day and more than one gourd grows on a vine. When some magical moment occurs inside the gourd, it turns off its growing mechanism and begins to change from bright green to yellow and finally to brown. By this time it is hard and dry. Shaking the gourd at this point allows the seeds to rattle inside. "That's when you know you can pick it," Deane comments.
In 2009, a fr.eak freeze that only affected her property destroyed all of Deane's plants and she had to start over again. Fortunately she harvests the seeds which she used to begin new plants. She also sells the seeds to anyone who wants to try growing luffas.
A tour of the Luffa Farm begins with a comparison of commercial luffas grown in other countries and imported here. Because these plants have to be chemically handled it affects the feel of the luffa and they are quite stiff and abrasive. Deane's luffas have just a slight amount of stiffness, but are essentially soft. "You can use them to wash the car if you want to," she says. “Our luffas won't give you raw skin, just a good clean feeling." They can be used on dishes and can be put in the dishwasher or the washing machine. "Just don't put them in the dryer," she warns, "as this will make them dry and scratchy."
After a tour, a stop in the gift shop is a must. Along with growing luffas, Deane also grows a variety of aromatic and healing herbs and uses them in products she creates such as hand poured glycerin soaps, lotions, bath salts, sachets, bath fizzlers and teas, eye masks, and neck wraps. She also makes a type of fabric coaster with lavender, peppermint, spearmint, and rose inside. When you rest a hot beverage on them it releases the scent to drift around you. Luffa Farm products are available online at www.theluffafarm.com.
Groups, bus tours, and school groups are welcome at the Luffa Farm and they can enjoy a choice of a catered lunch or cookies and tea. Reservations are necessary for group tours. Call 805-343-0883.
The Luffa Farm is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 A.M. to 4 P.M. A free tour requires no scheduling. Find them at 1457 Willow Road in Nipomo.
(This article was published in the Winter 2012 issue of the Access San Luis Obispo County Visitor’s Guide www.slovisitorsguide.com)