Growing Luffa Flowers for Bees
Imagine my delight to learn that bees love luffa flowers! The flowers of this unusual plant actually becomes sponges! That in itself is amazing. And, as beekeepers, we naturally develop a love of planting flowers that provide nectar or pollen. Growing luffa flowers for bees is an easy and fun project. And if you have much space available, even a few flower pots, a section for the bees can become a part of your annual garden design.
What is a Luffa?
As a beekeeper and gardener, I am constantly looking for new bee plant ideas. Of course, not every blooming plant attracts insects but many of them do.
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Including flowers that bees love helps provide a diverse diet of all area pollinators. And, if the plant is a bit odd, that’s even more exciting.
The most important thing to understand is that this plant is a vine. It is an annual that is frost tender. If your growing season is long enough, the pretty yellow flowers eventually become sponges.
The idea of growing sponges on a vine is too intriguing to pass up for folks like me.
Is it Loofah or Luffa?
There is a bit of a debate on the correct terminology for this plant (Luffa aegyptiaca). Most often, I hear the term “loofah” applied to the fiberous sponge that is the end result.
While the word “luffa” is used to describe the tender fruits – that can actually be eaten while young. I tend to use luffa for all but do understand there may be a difference in usage.
This vine is a member of the squash, pumpkin or gourd family and was brought over by European settlers. There are several varieties or cultivars of this tropical and subtropical plant.
Most people grow them for a reason other than the dinner table. The bright yellow flowers of the vine produce green oblong fruits that when dried become sponges!
Luffa Sponges Have Many Uses
If you are not familiar with this natural sponge, well – first of all where have you been? Just kidding. Seriously, loofa sponges are used for so many things related to the beauty industry.
They are well known for their gentle exfoliating properties. And, they are a natural product, a renewable resource – and heck, they are just plain fun.
How Luffa Plants Help Bees
The first reason you may want to grow this vine in your bee garden. It is cool. I mean, how many people do you know who currently grow sponges.
But uniqueness aside, the Luffa vine grows into a large beautiful vine. It is an annual but can provide a nice Summer screen to any outdoor area.
When the bright yellow luffa flowers appear in late Summer, they become a viable source of food to add to your bee’s diet. I witnessed bumble bees, wasps, honey bees, humming birds and other pollinators visiting my vines.
Male flowers are rich in pollen. Bees collect pollen as a protein resource. Female flowers occur in clusters and provide a fair amount of nectar. You may feel that you are waiting forever for blooms to appear.
However, once they get started, the vines bloom profusely until frost. I was very impatient to see blooms on my vine.
Can You Grow Luffa in Your Area
When you are choosing any plants for bees, you must make sure your climate is suitable for that plant. Through my research, I saw that it was possible to grow a Luffa plant in my region.
But, they require a long growing season to produce ripe fruit. Those with a shorter growing season may see luffa flowers but the fruit may not mature enough to become a sponge. These plants like at least 6 hours of full sun.
Luffa seeds are easy to find in early Spring at any garden center. Or you can avoid the hassle and order seeds online – they are not very expensive.
One pack of seeds is plenty for most backyard garden bee gardens. And, buying seeds is usually a cheaper way to approach planting for bees.
Even though I live in the South – next time I will start my seeds indoors earlier. I did not want to start seeds too early and have the plant get too large. I realize now that was not a worry, more on that in a bit.
Imagine my delight when I found information online from Deb Terrell (Nature’s Circle) showing honey bees working the blossoms of a Luffa vine! Smooth loofah gourd seeds are also available in local stores.
Growing Sponges from Seed
I had good luck with my seed starting and grew several starter vines. The seeds were soaked for 24 hours before planting. Then 2-3 seeds were planted in small peat pots using seed starter soil. After choosing 4 for myself, I gave the rest to friends and neighbors.
Start the seeds indoors and then transplant the plant outside after the last frost date. This is definitely the way to go. Unless you live in the deep south, sowing seed outside may not result in ripe fruit before frost.
If you decide to grow Luffa in your bee friendly garden, watch them carefully when they are small. It seems that every plant eating bug in the universe wants to take a bite. Once the plant gets started, pests are less of a problem.
Choosing the Best Location
The luffa vine is a …well.. a vine! It will grow to a rather large size so plan on having a strong vertical support in place.
As soon as your first seedling emerges, you should be thinking about how you are going to support them.
Set up a trellis or some type of heavy duty netting to allow your vine to climb. It is also possible to run the long vine along a chain-link fence.
But, with a vertical structure – it will climb. I had to rescue my wind chimes and my hummingbird feeders several times over the Summer !
Keep in mind that supporting a large green vine is one thing. Supporting a large green vine with heavy hanging fruit is another.
I have a partial block wall at one end of the house that would be perfect. I gave the vine strong cord to climb. This area gets plenty of sunlight, good air circulation and is not far away from the bee yard.
Lush summer growth of the vine will provide relief from the late day sun and provide a pollen and nectar source for my bees.
Luffa Flowers Provide Late Summer Food
One thing that makes this vine a great choice when planting for bees-is the time of bloom. The Luffa flowers can provide food for bees when there is little else out there- a nectar dearth.
I also hoped these luffa flowers would help keep the bees away from my hummingbird feeders during Summer.
Slow to start, once started the vine grows quickly. I had not applied any fertilizer to my vine. But I had a lot of vine and no flowers for a long time.
Flowers excrete nectar to attract bees and other pollinators. These insect visitors result in luffa pollination and more fruit.
As the vine outgrew the spot I had for it, I realized that I had chosen the wrong location. This thing was becoming a monster vine.
It was reaching the house top, I could only imagine what my husband must think… oops. But, I had invested too much heart in it to stop now.
The male flowers appeared first as single blossoms. I was delighted to see Bumble bees working the flowers for pollen during early Morning. But wait, where were the honey bees?
Obviously, the honey bees had found a source of pollen that they preferred at that time. Later, the honey bees joined the pollen gathering too.
My Luffa Plant Grows Too Big
Each week, I inspected the massive green monster vine looking for fruit. If you grow a big luffa vine like mine, expect to spend some time looking for your first fruit.
The beautiful large, green leaves are great for hiding little fruits. Finally, your luffa fruits will appear. From that point on, you will be surprised at their growth rate.
The smaller ones are similar to cucumbers and can be eaten. If you want to harvest sponges, leave the fruit to grow larger.
Harvest Loofah Gourds
When the fruit has matured, the luffa will feel soft and spongy. It is best to harvest them before frost kills the vine to prevent spoilage.
Some of your fruit will still be green and hard, you can harvest them too. But, ripe Luffa fruit will be easier to peel and I prefer them. Immature fruit are too difficult to peel in my opinion.
If you harvest only soft mature fruit, you are ready to find your sponge. First peel off the tough green peeling. The inside of the fruit contains pulp, seeds and a fibrous structure that becomes a sponge.
Take your peeled Luffa fruit and spray it again and again with water. You need to use a spray of water with force to clean the pulp and seeds out. Continue to spray and squeeze the fruit until the pulp is washed away.
Now you will have a fiber loofah sponge! This is left to dry in the sun for a few days – and you have Luffa sponges! You can use them yourself around the house or give them to your non-sponge growing friends.
While I am certainly a novice on growing Luffa, it was a great experience. My honey bees enjoyed the late Summer blooms. And other pollinators used the plant as a food source too. I had a blast with the project.
Like many beekeepers, I enjoy adding unusual flowers to my garden. Many of us grow lotus plants in our gardens to enjoy the lovely blooms. The bees love them too.
Would I grow loofah again? You betcha. But, I would only grow 1 or 2 vines and I would find another larger place to grow it or a different way to trellis. Have fun experimenting with growing Luffas-a bee friendly vine in your garden this year.
Yes, this plant is related to the cucumber and squash family. Luffa flowers can be eaten, as well as, young fruit.
The vine requires a long growing season, at least 6 hours of full sun and adequate moisture. Avoid over fertilizing your luffa vine.
The time from seed planting to mature loofah varies from 130 to 200 days. This is why gardeners in most regions start seeds indoors and then transplant outside after the last frost date.