BIKINGthrough my barriothe other day, Ispotted somethingnew: Doña Lourdeshad a newplant decoratingher front fence.Closer inspectionrevealed that thebright yellowflowers grew froma healthy luffasquash plant (Luffacylindrica), andbeneath the green foliage was a bumpercrop of luffa squashes.Fantastic! Several years had passedsince I last grew these novel squashes,and now was my opportunity to acquiresome new seed. Of course, Doña Lourdeswas more than pleased to donate severalmature squashes to my cause, particularlywhen I told her I was going to write anarticle on her squashes.Folks in my area call the luffa esponja,although I have also heard it calledpasta in the markets of the Central Valley.A member of the squash family, whichalso includes watermelon, cantaloupe andcucumber, the luffa sponge is widely cultivatedthroughout the tropics. It may befound in a semi-wild state in old clearingsand abandoned gardens, in rain forestsand semi-evergreen seasonal forests.Like most squashes, the luffa is a vinewith three-lobed leaves 7.5 to 20 centimetersacross – though some squashes haveleaves twice this size. The flowers arebright yellow. Oblong or cylindrical,smooth and many-seeded, the luffa fruitresembles cucumber but is brown whenmature.You can boil the young, green (half ripe)fruit and eat it as a vegetable.Adding coconut milk will improve the flavor.After ripening, the luffa spongedevelops an inedible sponge-like texturein the interior of the fruit.The tender shoots, flowers and youngleaves are also edible cooked, and themature seeds can be roasted for a snack.This hardy squash can be grown inmost regions of the country and is veryresistant to insects and diseases. As abonus, attractive, bright-yellow flowersmake it a handsome ornamental for a trellisor fence.HERE are some tips for growing luffaor any other member of the squash family.My secret for growing squash is compost– lots of it. I usually make a shallowhole in the ground about one meter wide and 50 cm deep, and then add a wheelbarrowload of rich, aged compost to make afertility mound. Squashes like lots ofpotassium, so I mix in two shovelfuls ofashes with the compost in the mound.Then, three seeds can be planted in themound about 5 cm deep and 30-40 cmapart, in the form of a triangle.Luffa needs a trellis or fence to climb,so prepare your planting area with anappropriate climber.When the young squashes begin toform, you can harvest them as a zucchinisquash for stir-fries and other vegetabledishes. Most people remove the hard skinbefore cooking. The other squashes on thevine should be left to mature until theyturn yellow or brown.The next step involves drying them ina hot, dry place until they are dark brownin color. Remove the outer skin, as well asthe seeds for future plantings. Thesponge-like membrane can be bleacheduntil white and then used in the shower orbath to clean the skin. The fibers of theluffa provide an exfoliating action toremove dead cells and increase circulationin the skin. You’ll also find luffa usefulfor scrubbing and cleaning in the kitchen.I would be glad to share my luffasquash seeds with readers. All you need todo is send me a self-addressed, stampedenvelope, and I’ll send you a gift package.For more information on tropical gardeningin Costa Rica, visit www.thenewdawncenter.org or e-mail email@example.com.