Luffa cylindrica (PROTA)
|Geographic coverage Africa|
|Geographic coverage World|
|Carbohydrate / starch|
|Forage / feed|
Luffa cylindrica (L.) M.Roem.
- Protologue: Fam. nat. syn. monogr. 2: 63 (1846).
- Family: Cucurbitaceae
- Chromosome number: 2n = 26
- Momordica cylindrica L. (1753),
- Luffa aegyptiaca Mill. (1768).
- Smooth loofah, sponge gourd, vegetable sponge, dishcloth gourd, dishrag gourd, rag gourd (En).
- Courge torchon, éponge végétale, liane torchon, pétole, luffa (Fr).
- Esponja vegetal (Po).
- Uziuzi, madodoki, mdodoki (Sw).
Origin and geographic distribution
Luffa cylindrica is widely distributed in the tropics and subtropics, as a cultivated and naturalized plant. Its cultivation is of ancient origin and it is hard to determine whether the native home is Africa or Asia. The plant occurs wild in West Africa, but this is often believed to be a result of escape from cultivation, as the plant is known as ‘white people’s sponge’ in several communities in the region. However, evidence of an Asian origin is rare. How the plant has spread over the entire tropical zone is also not clear. Some argue for ocean currents as a dispersal mechanism, but more often human dispersal is raised as the probable cause of the wide distribution of Luffa cylindrica.
When the fruit becomes old and dry the endocarp becomes a persistent fibrous vascular network which is used in various ways. A major use is as a sponge for washing and scrubbing utensils as well as the human body. It is also used for the manufacture of hats, insoles of shoes, car-wipers, pot-holders, table-mats, door and bath-mats, sandals and gloves. The fibre has also been used for its shock and sound absorbing properties, for instance in helmets and armoured vehicles, and as a filter in engines. In Ghana the dry fibre is used to filter water and palm wine. In Central Africa it is used to brush clothes. Fungal biosorbents immobilized on Luffa cylindrica sponges have been used for the biosorption of heavy metals from olive oil mill wastewater and other wastewaters.
The young fruit is eaten fresh or cooked as a vegetable, but it has to be picked before the fibrous vascular bundles harden and before the purging compounds develop. In Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire edible cultivars are grown. Edible forms have also been developed in India and the Philippines where the plant is commonly cultivated. In India and China a type of curry is prepared with the fruit which is peeled, sliced and fried. In Japan the fruits are eaten fresh or sliced and dried to be eaten later. The leaves are also eaten as a vegetable. The roasted seeds are edible and contain an edible oil. The oil has been used in the United States in soap manufacture. The bitter and toxic seedcake is unsuitable as feed for cattle, but can be used as fertilizer given that it is rich in N and P. The fruits and leaves are browsed by goats. Bees feed on the flowers.
In traditional African medicine pulp of the whole plant is used as a suppository against constipation. Root preparations are taken for the treatment of constipation and as a diuretic. In Gabon a root preparation is used as remedy of nose cancer. In DR Congo a decoction of the roots and leaves is recorded to be drunk or used in an enema as an abortifacient, but in Tanzania a root decoction and leaf sap are recorded to be drunk to reduce the danger of abortion. The leaves are used to promote wound healing and to maturate abscesses. In Togo leaf preparations are applied on oedemas and taken for the treatment of malaria. In the Central African Republic ground leaves are introduced rectally for the treatment of enterobiasis. In Congo the leaf juice is considered to be effective against filaria, and an aqueous maceration of fresh leaves is taken for the treatment of whooping cough. In Rwanda the leaves are pounded with water and the sap is taken for the treatment of stomach-ache. In Uganda leaf preparations are used to facilitate childbirth. Zulu people in South Africa take a leaf decoction to treat stomach-ache. The fruit is used in Guinea on tumours and swellings, and the fruit pulp is used in Guinea and Nigeria as an emollient. The fruit sap is taken as a strong purgative. The seeds are credited with emollient and anthelminthic properties. They are also emetic and cathartic. The seed oil is used for the treatment of skin problems. Unripe fruits have been used as fish poison.
Production and international trade
Japan is among the primary world producers and importers of Luffa cylindrica sponges and has established a grading system to ensure uniformity. Products from Japan are considered to be of superior quality. In recent years the product has been imported from Japan into the United States as cosmetic sponge. There is also trade between the United States and other countries in Asia and Latin America. It is a traditional product of commerce in the whole Mediterranean, known under the arabic name ‘luff’. Luffa cylindrica sponges are produced and traded in tropical Africa, but statistics are not available. Commercial grade sponges are preferably between 15 and 40 cm long, free of seeds and with pale, uniform colour. Young fruits can be found as a vegetable in Chinese groceries in the West.
Sponges from the fruit of Luffa cylindrica are soft and non-scratching, making them very suitable as wash cloth and for cleaning glass and china. The sponges tolerate mechanical stress and resume their original shape after being pressed down. Moreover, they are rotproof and appreciated in body care as a substitute for massage gloves. Luffa cylindrica fibre has a high water absorption capacity, making it suitable as an absorbent, for instance to decolour aqueous effluents. Another potential use is the reinforcement of resin matrix composite materials, but in this case a barrier layer, for instance of glass fibres, is necessary to avoid water absorption from the environment. The sponge has a high degree of porosity, high specific pore volume, stable physical properties and is non-toxic and biodegradable. These properties make it suitable as support matrix to plant, algal, bacterial and yeast cells. The fibre strands contain 50–62% α-cellulose, 20–28% hemicellulose and 10–12% lignin.
The raw leaves contain per 100 g edible portion: moisture 94.0 g, energy 58 kJ (14 kcal), protein 1.6 g, fat 0.1 g, carbohydrates (including fibre) 2.7 g, ash 1.6 g, Ca 330 mg, P 33 mg (Leung, Busson & Jardin, 1968). Leaf extracts, containing saponins, alkaloids and cardiac glycosides, have shown antibacterial activity against Bacillus subtilis, Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Salmonella typhi. Aqueous extracts of the leaves have shown in-vitro oxytocic activity. In one study ethanolic leaf extracts showed in-vitro antiplasmodial activity against Plasmodium falciparum, while in another study the crude ethanolic extract had no significant antimalarial activity, but the petroleum ether fraction of the ethanolic extract was active against Plasmodium falciparum.
The immature fruit contains per 100 g edible portion: moisture 94.0 g, energy 88 kJ (21 kcal), protein 0.6 g, fat 0.2 g, carbohydrates 4.9 g, Ca 16 mg, P 24 mg, Fe 0.6 mg, vitamin A 235 IU, thiamin 0.04 mg, riboflavin 0.02 mg, niacin 0.3 mg and ascorbic acid 7 mg. The fruit also contains saponins. Fruits of wild forms are bitter and poisonous. Various antioxidant compounds have been isolated from the fruit. Lucyosides isolated from the fruit have shown antitussive activity. Ethanolic extracts of the fruit have shown antibacterial and antifungal activity.
Seeds from Sudan contained per 100 g: moisture 4.1 g, protein 32.8 g, fat 37.0 g, crude fibre 12.7 g, carbohydrate 8.9 g and ash 4.5 g. Dehulled seeds from Nigeria contained per 100 g: moisture 2.3 g, crude protein 37.6 g, crude fat 42.3 g, crude fibre 3.0 g, carbohydrate 10.6 g and ash 4.3 g. Seed extracts, containing saponins, alkaloids and cardiac glycosides, have shown antibacterial activity against Bacillus subtilis, Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Salmonella typhi. Luffin-a and luffin-b, proteins isolated from the seed, have shown abortifacient and antitumour activity, and protein-biosynthesis inhibitory activity. Luffacylin, luffin p1 and luffin-s have shown ribosome inactivating activity; luffacylin also has antifungal activity against Fusarium oxysporum and Mycosphaerella arachidicola, and luffin p1 has anti-HIV-1 activity. The seed contains various triterpene saponins, some of them highly toxic. Two triterpenoids isolated from the seed (sapogenins 1 and 2) have shown in-vivo immunostimulatory effects in mice. The triterpene oleanolic acid has shown anti-inflammatory activity. Aqueous seed extracts and polysaccharides and proteins from the seed have shown in-vitro antitumour activity. An ethanolic extract of the seed reduced blood glucose levels in streptozotocin diabetic rats, but had no effects on blood glucose levels in normal rats.
The seed oil is variously described as colourless or green or brownish, probably depending on the extraction method. The main fatty acids in the seed oil are palmitic acid (10–23%), stearic acid (7–19%), oleic acid (7–40%) and linoleic acid (43–65%).
Bryonolic acid, a pentacyclic triterpene isolated from cultured cells of Luffa cylindrica, has shown in-vivo anti-allergic and anti-inflammatory effects in rats and mice.
Adulterations and substitutes
The fruit of Luffa acutangula (L.) Roxb. (‘ridged gourd’) is primarily used as a vegetable but when dry its fibre can also be used as a sponge. However, the sponge of Luffa acutangula is of low quality and therefore the plant is rarely grown for its spongy characteristics.
Monoecious, annual, climbing or trailing herb up to 15 m long, stem 5-angled, finely hairy; tendrils 2–6-fid. Leaves alternate, simple; stipules absent; petiole up to 15 cm long; blade ovate in outline, 6–25 cm × 6–27 cm, palmately 3–7-lobed with triangular or ovate lobes, cordate at the base, lobes acute or subacute and apiculate at the apex, margin sinuate-dentate, scabrous, dark green, palmately veined. Male inflorescence racemose, 5–20-flowered; peduncle 7–32 cm long, finely hairy; female flowers solitary. Flowers unisexual, regular, 5-merous, 5–10 cm in diameter; petals free, entire, broadly obovate, 2–4.5 cm long, deep yellow; male flowers on bracteate pedicels 3–13 mm long, receptacle tube obconic below, expanded above, 3–8 mm long, with triangular lobes 8–12 mm long, sepals ovate, 8–14 mm long, stamens 3 or 5, free, inserted on the receptacle tube, connectives broad; female flowers on pedicel 1.5–14.5 cm long, receptacle tube shortly cylindrical and 2.5–6 mm long, with ovate lobes c. 1 cm long, sepals ovate-lanceolate or lanceolate, 8–16 mm long, ovary inferior, stigmas 3, 2-lobed. Fruit an ellipsoid or cylindrical capsule up to 60(–90) cm × 10(–12) cm, beaked, not prominently ribbed, brownish, dehiscent by an apical operculum, glabrous, many-seeded. Seeds lenticular, broadly elliptical in outline, compressed, 10–15 mm × 6–11 mm × 2–3 mm, smooth, dull black, with a narrow, membranous wing-like border. Seedling with epigeal germination; cotyledons ovate, c. 5 cm long.
Other botanical information
Luffa comprises 7 species, 4 of these native to the Old World tropics and 3 somewhat more distantly related species indigenous to South America. Luffa cylindrica hybridises with other species of the genus, but in most cases hybrids show a great reduction in fertility or even sterility. Hybrids of Luffa cylindrica and Luffa acutangula are found in cultivation. These are bitter and inedible, but suitable for the production of sponges.
Within Luffa cylindrica cultivated and wild forms are distinguished:
– Smooth Loofah Group (synonym: var. aegyptiaca): the large-fruited, less bitter, cultivated forms, with different cultivars for the production of the best sponge or the best vegetable.
– var. leiocarpa (Naudin) Heiser & Schilling: the wild forms occurring in Asia.
The differentiation of the strands in the fruit begins when the ovary primordium is about 1 mm and new strands continue to form until cell division ceases. A complex anastomosing fibre network is then produced. Each fibre consists of 200–500 cells connected by their cell wall and surrounding a central longitudinal channel. The fibre elements are in fact dead sclerenchymatic cells with thick, lignified walls and reabsorbed protoplasm. The fibres are difficult to separate and can differ considerably in diameter, length, and spacing of the fibre strands.
Growth and development
Flowers open in the early morning. Pollination is by insects. Luffa cylindrica is self-compatible and natural propagation is by seed. At maturity, the operculum of the fruit opens and frees the seeds which are carried by wind, though not over long distances.
Luffa cylindrica persists in old cultivations and near dwellings, frequently becoming naturalized in forest, woodland, bushland, thicket and grassland, from sea-level up to 1500(–1800) m altitude.
In cultivation the crop grows well in tropical regions. In temperate regions it is suitable for summer growing conditions. The plant is sensitive to frost. Excessive rainfall during flowering and fruiting adversely affects fruit yields. A deep sandy loam is preferred.
Propagation and planting
Propagation is by seed. The 1000-seed weight is 70–100 g. In cultivation the seeds are saved from the previous crop. Seeds of hybrid cultivars should not be collected for planting. Germination is best at temperatures of 20–30°C. Plantations can be established by direct sowing or transplanting. Luffa cylindrica is usually planted c. 1 m apart.
Like many other cucurbit species Luffa cylindrica has a moderate nutrient requirement. In cultivation a trellis is required to support the climbing stem. In Africa the plant is mostly grown in home gardens with little management. For commercial production of Luffa cylindrica sponges it is important to adequately manage plant spacing, fruit size and the number of fruits per plant as this might influence yields. Side branches are best pruned to promote growth of the main stem, and not more than 20–25 fruits per stem should be allowed to grow.
Diseases and pests
A number of common cucurbit diseases and pests are also found in Luffa cylindrica cultivation. These include powdery mildew, downy mildew, pumpkin flies and red spider mite. For instance several species of pumpkin flies (including Bactrocera depressa and Bactrocera scutellata) attack the immature fruit. These dark brown insects penetrate the fruit skin and the tissue around the puncture mark dries and becomes darker and slightly sunken.
Mature fruits to be used for their fibre are harvested 3–6 months after sowing, when they start to turn yellow. Fruits for consumption should be harvested before they become fibrous; their harvesting starts 2 months after planting. Immature fruits do not store well, and should be marketed or prepared for consumption as soon as they are harvested.
Reports from India and Japan show that Luffa cylindrica can produce more than 62,000 fruits/ha with a plant density of 11,000 plants/ha, the number of fruits per plant being limited to 5–6. In natural stands, the number of fruits produced per plant can be much higher than 6. For instance, a report from Columbia indicated that with 5300 plants/ha the production was 200,000 fruits/ha with a fruit size of 30–90 cm × 8–12 cm and a crop cycle of 15 months.
Handling after harvest
The basic method for preparing sponges is to immerse the dry, mature fruit in water for 2–3 days to soften the skin and flesh and be able to easily remove these and the seeds. In other processing methods boiling water is used. In commercial enterprises the fruits are placed in tanks with running water until the skin and pulp disintegrate, after which they are washed to remove the pulp and seeds. The fibrous endocarp is bleached in a sodium hypochlorite solution before a final washing and drying, or it is dried and bleached in the sun.
The largest ex-situ collections of Luffa species are held in the United States, India and the Philippines. A DNA bank of 131 accessions of Luffa cylindrica collected from 8 West African countries is available at the Genebank Department of the Leibniz Institute of Genetics and Crop Plants Research (IPK, Gatersleben). Genetic resources of wild forms are not under threat as the species is ubiquitous and grows widely in tropical regions. Cultivated forms in Africa, however, require urgent inventory and conservation actions to promote local growers’ efforts for cultivar selection and improvement.
Variability exists in the thickness of the outer zones of the fibre network (which form the bulk of the sponge), the compactness of the network, the diameter of the strands and the length of the fibre cells. These traits are inherited and thus offer prospects for selection and breeding. Numerous cultivars and interspecific hybrids are available in the major production countries.
Luffa cylindrica fruits are a very useful local source of fibre used for sponges and other applications and of edible fruits. There may even be scope for commercial production of sponges for the export market. To increase the profitability, the production of sponges combined with oil extraction from the seeds may offer prospects. The wide application in traditional medicine and the results of pharmacological investigations indicate medicinal potential.
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Correct citation of this article
Achigan-Dako, E.G. & N’danikou, S. & Vodouhê, R.S., 2011. Luffa cylindrica (L.) M.Roem. [Internet] Record from PROTA4U. Brink, M. & Achigan-Dako, E.G. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. <http://www.prota4u.org/search.asp>.
Accessed 1 March 2020.
- See the Prota4U database.