I don’t know about you, but I’m thankful to see a little green. No, I’m not talking about green beer and St. Patty’s Day. I’m talking about little shoots of garlic breaking through the field in rows and little green nubs of daffodils pushing up where the March sun touches the soil. And then, there are the photographs of seasons past at Fleur-de-Lys Farm.
Over the years, the plants that have harvested the most questions from visitors are our lovely luffas. Luffa aegyptiaca is what it is known as in botanical circles. In the bathtub or the kitchen you might hear it called simply, luffa. In vintage seed catalogs or encyclopedias, it might go by the name of dishcloth gourd, Chinese running okra, vegetable sponge, or strainer vine.
The 1888 Burpee’s catalog described luffa as “A natural dishcloth, and a most admirable one. Many ladies prefer this dishcloth. The fruit grow about 2 feet, and the vine is very ornamental, producing clusters of yellow blossoms, in pleasing contrast with the silvery-shaded, dark-green foliage. In the North this variety requires starting in a hotbed. The dried interiors of these gourds have already become an article of commerce; grown in Florida, they are sold by Philadelphia and NY druggists.”
Luffas have been a solid fill-in crop at Fleur-de-Lys. Like eggs, our luffa sponges are available year-round. Luffa seeds need to be started indoors in March, but after you plant the baby luffa vines in the ground around June 1 (in Pennsylvania), you basically stand back and let ‘em rip. The vines curl and twist and travel across the planting bed and clamber up any fence or trellis that gets in their way. They keep growing and going, over wires and pickets, scrambling until frost stops them in their tracks. Meanwhile, they push out these yellow searchlight blossoms that call to pollinators and photographers. Turn your back, and a fruit starts growing, peeking out behind a fan of leaves like a shy kitten. Next time you look, it’s putting your biggest baseball bat zucchini to shame.
As summer eases into fall, the mature luffas change from green to yellow to brown. After the first hard frost, I cut off the luffas from the vines and place them in our plastic hoop house to dry. When the solar heat begins to wane, I bring them inside where they continue to cure with the heat of our pellet stove. As they dry out, you can gently squeeze and pop the skin, breaking the blossom end cap and almost unzip the skin along its lengthwise ribs (like peeling a banana), exposing the plant’s fibrous vascular system … aka, the luffa sponge. Next, the fun part: shaking out the seeds. Once the seeds are removed (save them for next year’s crop) you can soak your luffa in hydrogen peroxide or bleach to lightened any dark spots.
Then, rub-a-dub-dub, you’re ready for the tub! According to a University of Georgia Extension publication, the luffa sponge induces blood circulation for the skin, providing relief for those suffering from rheumatism and arthritis. And potato and carrot skins love them too! By using a luffa as a vegetable scrubber, you don’t remove the valuable nutrients often lost by peeling. Luffas are machine washable, environmentally safe, biodegradable, and a renewable resource.
Yes, you can even eat them; when they’re young, about six inches long. My nephew/chef Wille sautéed a few for me last summer. With a little olive oil and garlic, they taste like any other young, tender squash … but they grow up to be so much more. Luffas are used as soles for slippers, insulation for army helmets, stuffing for mattresses and saddles, filters for steam engines and diesel motors, and can they can soundproof wall boarding. At Fleur-de-Lys Farm Market, we sell luffa chunks for $2 each.
Search for the green, Laurie Lynch.
March Madness, Windowsill Greenery: We have a limited supply of Fleur-de-Lys Farm luffa seeds if you’d like to give them a try.
Listen for the Green: Doug Tallamy, professor and chair of entomology and wildlife ecology, U of Delaware, and author of “Bringing Nature Home” will give a free lecture at Kutztown University’s Boehm Science Center, Room 145, March 21 at 7 p.m. Books for sale and book signing after talk.
Green with Envy: What are friends for? Bob Leiby, Lehigh County Cooperative Extension director and potato man, emailed asking if I had any “sprouted, spindly old potatoes” in my potato storage area that he could use for a class he was teaching. “The ones you had last year were excellent to make a point about the physiological age of potato seed.” And what about the physiological age of potato farmers, I’m feeling a little sprouted and spindly and old myself!
Taste the Green: Remember the sauerkraut I mentioned tasting at the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center? Well, I got in touch with Becky, the woman who made the dish for Christmas at the Farm. Here is her story:
“Sauerkraut’s been made for probably thousands of years just by using two ingredients, cabbage and salt. And that’s all I use.”
5 pounds cabbage, outer leaves removed, cores removed, thinly shredded
3 Tablespoons kosher salt or sea salt (don’t use salt with iodide)
Mix shredded cabbage and salt thoroughly. Let stand for 10 minutes to wilt. Transfer to crock. Using a potato masher, crush cabbage until juice forms and comes to the surface. The traditional way to weight down the kraut is to spread a clean, washable cloth directly on it. Tuck edges in all around. Place a plate that just fits inside crock so the cabbage is not exposed to air. Place a weight – stone, brick or a glass jar filled with water – on top. Check the kraut every few days. Fermentation causes gases and bubbles. Remove scum as it appears on the top, wash cloth and plate, and put back on top.
At a temperature of 68-72°, the kraut could be ready to eat in 3-4 weeks. Eat, can or freeze after this time period.
“This kraut is so much milder than the stuff in the bag or can. It’s got a slight crunch, not mushy. I usually rinse mine before cooking with it to remove extra salt,” Becky suggests. “Modern adaptation: Place plastic food storage bags filled with water to weigh down the cabbage. The object is to keep the cabbage under the brine and to seal it from the air to prevent mold.
“For the recipe I used at Christmas, I really just eyeball the ingredients and taste. It’s based on old recipes I’ve seen. I used my homemade sauerkraut on the bottom of the pot. I added a tablespoon or two of brown sugar, chopped apples, some apple cider, and a handful of onions. I placed the turkey on top and simmered that night over the fire. I had precooked the turkey that night for demonstration purposes. Turkey or goose and sauerkraut were a very traditional 19th-century way to eat Christmas dinner.”
Green (as in inexperienced) with Blogs: I’ve gotten several emails from people who have tried to become “followers” but can’t, as well as those who have left comments that disappear. I’m trying to root out the problem. In the meantime, if anyone has any ideas, please let me know.