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Enjoy the world of sponges and luffas

We use them for washing cars, floors, kitchens, bathrooms and even our bodies.

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Synthetic sponge and luffa scrubbing sponges are commonly used in washing the body and rejuvenating the skin through exfoliation.
John Zvirovski / The Jamestown Sun
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John Zvirovski, Jamestown Sun garden editor
John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun

Every so often there comes a plant or animal in nature’s kingdom that causes us to stop and think. Sometimes we will see a plant in its raw form and not recognize the commercial product that may be developed from it. It falls into the same curiosity where we question if something is a fruit or vegetable. A perfect example would be the tomato, it is grown and sold as a vegetable but is actually a fruit. Simple things like this cause us to look more into situations, and sometimes they intrigue us enough to do a little research and learn more.

For years, one of the items that I always thought was a plant was the sponge. We use them for washing cars, floors, kitchens, bathrooms and even our bodies. I think the name sponge always led me to believe they were a plant material that grew on the ocean floor. I was partly right given it grows on the ocean floor, however, it is actually considered a simple animal in its true form.

Sponges do not have internal organs, but they do have cell walls and breathe through the numerous pores in these walls. Water flows through the numerous channels within the sponge to deliver oxygen, algae, plankton and even small crustaceans that are absorbed through the cell walls for nutrition and continued growth and health of the organism. Some sponge types grow somewhat quickly with time and others grow at a very minimal pace, sometimes taking centuries to develop into anything with size.

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Most sponges grow in the salt waters of the oceans and seas but there are a few that will grow in freshwater locations also. They prefer an area where the water is clear, as cloudy waters clog the pores and halt the delivery of oxygen to the cells, causing the organism to perish.

Sponges have been in demand for many years due to their soft qualities and their ability to collect and hold large amounts of water. This is the reason for their domestic use in the home and office for cleaning various surfaces. The sponge industry was a very valuable crop for many decades, however overharvesting them in the 1950s nearly caused the industry to collapse, as they were beginning to be more and more difficult to find. Since that time, sponges have been created through synthetic materials or have been grown in "sponge farms" where their growth and harvest if monitored.

Along with the new synthetic sponges, came the loofah, sometimes referred to as a luffa. Luffa is not defined as a sponge, as it does not have high water-holding capabilities, however, its dense structure of coarse fibers popularized it into a beauty product to scrub dead skin off the body and allow newer skin to give a younger look and feel. The difference between luffa and a true sponge is that the luffa is actually a plant that can be grown in the garden. Unfortunately for us, it needs too long of a growing season to mature in our northern region as they need 150 to 200 days to mature. Most crops in our area need to mature in time frames well below 150 days.

Luffa falls into the cucumber family and develops its fruit on vines. When fully mature, the size of the fruits resembles that of zucchini. In Asian countries, this fruit is harvested and eaten while it is still young and tender in various food dishes. Usually, if it is under a foot long and narrow, it remains tender and good in flavor. As the fruit matures, the tense fiber structure within the fruit becomes tough and coarse. Through time, the skin will dry off and the moisture will evaporate from the fruit leaving behind the fibrous structure that we use today as the luffa scrubbing sponge. This resulting sponge can be about 15 to 18 inches long and about 4 to 6 inches across with four deep seed channels that can be emptied when shaken. The fruit is cut into sections to be used as individual scrubbing sponges.

Care of your luffa sponge is of top importance to allow it to last. Whenever you are finished using a luffa in the bathroom, make sure to rinse it and thoroughly dry it before another use. Oftentimes, luffa sponges are left in the shower where it is damp and warm allowing the bacteria from your skin to grow within the sponge. By allowing it to completely dry out, this bacteria doesn’t have a chance to grow. Sometimes placing the damp sponge into the microwave for 20 seconds is just enough time to kill the bacteria. Others find soaking them in a 5% bleach solution will also take out this bacteria and allow the sponge's continued use. Never use a moist sponge over and over again without treating it in between uses.

MORE GARDENING TOPICS BY JOHN ZVIROVSKI
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Plants and animals are all part of the natural world in which we interact, however. it is always fun to learn more about some products that we just take for granted. Before writing about this subject, I asked many people where they thought they luffa originated and I heard many things from a gourd to a cucumber to a sea cucumber to an actual fruit grown in the garden. Sometimes it is amazing what we take for granted and have no idea of their origins.

When confronted with a new item in which you are foggy on its history, I encourage you to delve further into the subject matter and learn more. Gardening is full of new and wonderful surprises and I hope you are always presented with something so intriguing that it forces you to learn more about its origins. Soak up the fun and enjoy the journey.

Related Topics: GARDENINGHOME AND GARDEN
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