Loofahs (genus Luffa) are a squash not eaten but used as vegetable sponges--a bathing spa favorite as well as good multi-purpose scrubbers around the house. Tropical in origin, they grow best in the Deep South or may be grown in a heated greenhouse in cooler climes.
With a long growing season, loofah squash are generally started indoors several weeks before the last frost date. Soak the hard seeds for at least 12 hours and plant 2 or 3 to a 4- to 6-inch container and keep in a warm, dark place; germination can take several weeks. Once sprouted, move the seedlings into good light. When seedlings are 2 inches tall, thin to the strongest plant; at 3 inches they are ready to be transplanted outdoors, provided the weather is warm and stable. The vigorous vines are attractive, with yellow flowers.
For the best sponges, leave gourds undisturbed on the vine to mature, ripen, and dry. In shorter-season climates, harvest the gourds and dry indoors until they turn brown, feel light, and rattle with loose seeds when shaken. Slice off the big end and shake to remove the seeds. Soak the dried gourd overnight or until the skin separates from the sponge. Remove any loose pulp from the netted interior and soak in a mild bleach solution. Dry thoroughly out of direct sunlight.
Ambitious do-it-yourselfers should also check out pairing this project with some soaps to make a truly special homemade gift. Here's a recipe to get you started, but consult Carla's section on soap making in The Encyclopedia of Country Living for more details.
Take 4 packed c. fragrant flowers (such as rose, cherry, or apple), 4 c. rendered tallow, 2 c. cold soft water, vegetable oil, and 1⁄2 c. plus 2 T. lye flakes.
Gather flowers just before you make the soap.
Immerse them in the melted tallow.
Heat for an hour just at the melting point.
Allow to harden overnight and then remelt (don't overheat) and strain.
Add enough vegetable oil to flower tallow to total 5 cups.
Cool. Stir lye into cold water until dissolved.
Grease molds with vaseline.
Proceed to cool, mix, and mold as for any other soap.