What Is An Unusual or Exotic Vegetable & How Do I Get Unusual Vegetables To Grow In A UK Garden (Or Anywhere Else)? And Where Can I Buy Unusual Vegetable Seeds? These Questions Are Answered Here.
When I started my career as a market gardener growing salads and vegetables, many crops such as peppers, chillis, coriander weren’t frequently grown by gardeners in the UK. Nor were a host of other plants that today we find in supermarkets and consider perfectly normal and easy to grow in or gardens. I was fortunate in being approached by an Indian guy who asked me to grow crops specifically for him and the shops he served in places such as Bedford, Leicester, Bradford and beyond. Soon I was growing a half-acre of coriander per sowing, had a tunnel of snake gourds, was considering the merits of fenugreek varieties and a growing host of other non-traditional, exotic, “queer gear” (not politically correct today but this was the term used for years as seen in this Daily Mail vegetable article), bhaji crops.
Some argue the change goes back to the advent of low-cost air travel and cheap overseas holidays. Suddenly we were eating food we’d never experienced before and our journey into learning about unusual vegetables to grow in the UK commenced.
Or at least that is part of the story. The real story is somewhat different. Many of the plants we are now starting to grow as unusual crops have actually been with us for years and are being re-discovered.
What Have The Romans Ever Done For Gardeners?
My local hedgerows contain a plant called Alexanders or horse parley (Smyrnium olusatrum). It’s a plant that thrives near the sea on cliff tops and seaside hedgerows but is less common once we travel more than a mile or so from the sea. Except, that is, around monasteries and nunneries, where monks and nuns grew it in their gardens.
Alexanders isn’t a native plant. It was introduced to the UK by the Romans as an edible plant. Every part of the plant is edible and for centuries country people, in my area of the south-west of England, have foraged for it. All of it is edible .. flowers, stems, stalk, seeds and roots. In recent years Alexanders has become popular with foragers and gardeners. Seed and young plants are now available from nurseries and specialist seed houses.
Other unusual plants have a history that goes back to the colonial days of the British Empire. As the map turned pink the palate of the British administrators and soldiers was subjected to a wide range of vegetables, fruits and flavours. Some were to become adopted favourites and explains reports that the favourite British dish is now curry!
The next source of unusual veg is immigration. Not only did ethnic people in the UK want to buy fruit and veg they knew in corner shops. They wanted to grow them here on their gardens and allotments as this report from Garden Organic demonstrates.
Finally, there is a huge swathe of food crops we can grow today that were considered too difficult to grow here. In my own small way, I was one of the people that changed all that. Let me explain.
Discovering Unusual Vegetables To Grow Commercially
For years, in the UK we ate “butterhead” and Cos lettuce. Butterhead are those soft fluffy thin-leaved lettuce that have a short shelf life. They were the very first lettuce I ever grew commercially .. all 90,000 in one go. Grown in autumn under glass we had to cut all 90,000 in a few weeks in early winter. If you want to know what it feels like to cut so many lettuce stand up straight then try bending down and touching your toes 90,000 times. It’s back-breaking work and profits weren’t high!
Cos lettuce are a thicker leafed lettuce. More upright in stature they last longer and to my mine has much more flavour than butterhead lettuce. I preferred Cos lettuce and still grow the same variety now, over 40 years later. It’s called Lobjoits Green Cos.
The problem was that people’s tastes were changing. We’d had Lakeland lettuce varieties grown outdoors in the summer for years. They were a bit like crisp lettuce and lasted a bit longer in the fridge than other varieties. But they were prone to mildew and couldn’t be grown under glass in spring, autumn or winter. In those seasons we imported crisp and Lakeland type lettuce.
Then I saw a trial of indoor crisp lettuce being grown under glass one autumn. They were a new variety and were superb. Heavy, real crisp lettuce like we have today. They had superb keeping quality and would last weeks in the fridge. And in those days the flavour was good. He also said he thought they would be OK as a spring crop but no one had tried yet. Lights flashed in my head and I said I’d like to try to grow them in spring if he could supply the seed. He could and I decided on an all or nothing strategy.
April 1st the following year could have seen my looking like a fool as I started to cut the lettuce. It was a variety called Marmer (no longer available, unfortunately) and they were heavy, top quality lettuce that sold extremely well in the London markets.
That decided me. 90% of my nursery was planted to crisp lettuce during the summer and were harvested in autumn.
Financially we had our best year ever.
The following spring saw a lot more Marmer grown in the UK. The London markets and supermarkets had bee encouraging their suppliers to grow crisp (iceberg) lettuce and many had.
By year three the good margins we had made were fast disappearing and I started my search for other exotic crops to grow.
I have to admit my responsibility in the introduction of iceberg lettuce to the UK. In my defence I can only say “sorry” but they were tasty in those days … (the tasteless ones today are nothing to do with me …. honest)
40+ Unusual Vegetables To Grow
Over the next months, I’ll add 40 or more Unusual Vegetables To Grow in your garden.
Watch this space for information on how to grow Dudi, Callaloo, Tree Spinach, Lai, Papaya, Hamburg Parsley, Quinoa, Fat Hen, Loofah, Cow Peas, Chickpeas, Kiwis, Guava, Lentils, Amaranth, Chinese Stem Lettuce, Fenugreek, Coriander, African Horned Cucumber, Yacon, Kabo and many, many, more wonderful, tasty exotics and other Unusual Vegetables To Grow
Tea (Camellia sinensis)
The old saying talks about “all the tea in China”. That’s where tea was originally grown for human consumption. Later it was grown in India and huge tea plantations were planted. Several Indian types of tea were grown but between 1848 – 1851 Robert Fortune spent time in China “acquiring” tea seeds and plants to send to India. I say acquiring but the Chinese authorities would call it stealing as they were regarded as the property of the Chinese empire.
Fortune brought 20,000 plants back to India and the rest is history. Until that is. Tea was grown commercially in England!
Growing Tea in England
Tea requires quite specific conditions. It will not grow in commercial quantities everywhere.
Even where it is grown commercially its been found to grow well on one side of an area but not on the other side of a relatively small patch. Tea likes warmth and sunshine, but it doesn’t like intense sunshine … it really is that fussy! What is does like is a good mist. And in the spot where it now grows well, the crops get a morning mist coming up from the two local rivers enough days a year to make them thrive.
The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall, nestled on a peninsula between the River Fal and Truro River, has grown commercial crops of tea since 2005. But even here the tea is fussy about the conditions and prefers a north-west slope, which is counter-intuitive! And out of the 1000 acre estate, only 150 acres are deemed suitable for tea production.
So growing tea in your garden isn’t going to be easy. However, tea is a camellia. And if you can grow those in your garden you might, just might, have a suitable microclimate for good yields of tea. . To be fair, it’s unlikely. But you may have a good enough climate to grow a small amount of tea for your own use.
Tea Cultivation in England
Tea isn’t an instant crop. It takes several years to grow into a plant that is 4-5 feet high, with a good root system, before it can be harvested. By then it will be quite bushy, with a lot of leaves. Most of these leaves are no good to produce tea. They are called maintenance leaves as they maintain the plant. The ones you want are the Flush leaves, the new leaves that spring up on top of the plant. These are fresh, have better flavour and are suitable for drying.
Grown well, tea plants (Camellia sinensis) will live for 400 years! So, though it take s a few years to establish. the crop is there for the long term.
Finding the right location for tea in your garden isn’t going to be easy. But a handful of people reading this post will undoubtedly have conditions where ta can thrive.
Samphire is a halophyte. It loves salt and it grows in the tidal estuaries, salt marshes and other similar places where it gets drenched in salt every day. Of course, there’s a limit to the amount of salt it will tolerate, but being near the sea suits it fine. Samphire is often called Marsh Samphire or Marsh Glasswort and has been harvested around the coasts for centuries.
So how can we grow it in our gardens?
The answer is simple. We treat it the same as every other plant we grow. We give it what it likes. We give it plenty of salty water (but not too much)
And to do that we need to grow it in a container that sits in a shallow tray of saltwater. But beware, even though samphire likes salty water it likes well-drained soil. It can’t stand being submerged all the time, It needs the “tide to go out” on it!
So, grow your samphire in a sandy soil NOT compost. Compost is likely to be too wet for it.
Samphire is used by chefs as a vegetable in various dishes, But in my view, it goes best with fish and other seafood.
A number of outlets sell samphire. In this video, Riverford Organics are harvesting samphire. and talk about the short season.
However, with staggered sowing and careful growing, I believe it possible to extend the normal three month season a bit. The seed is available from various seed companies and they recommend surface sowing onto a well-drained but damp soil and then covering the plants with a very fine sprinkling of soil or vermiculite. After that just water from the base.
That makes some sense as in nature the seeds would fall onto a damp soil and the only covering it would get is if any silt where deposited on it by the tide. That’s likely to be minimal and anything with too much covering is unlikely to survive. Plus the soil will be exposed twice a day as the tide goes in and out. The reason they say water from below is that vigorous watering is likely to dislodge the seed .. so watering from below prevents this.
As can be seen from the video, harvest is by cutting the crop just a few centimetres about soil surface.
Salt for Samphire
It would be best if you used seawater for watering your samphire but that’s not easy for most people. So I suggest using pure sea salt as table salt has anti-caking chemicals added to it when it processed.
Perennial Kale (Brassica oleracea var ramosa / var acephala)
Perennial Kale is a strange plant. It’s a brassica, so related to cabbages, kales, sprouts, caulis etc. There are several types but so different to other cabbage family plants; it’s very tall, lives for 5-7 years, is relatively pest and disease resistant and …. this is the weird bit … rarely flowers.
Whilst most brassicas flower very readily …think of the yellow fields of oilseed rape in particular …this kale doesn’t readily flower. And because it doesn’t flower, propagation is by cuttings. But more about that later.
The main types I’m familiar with are Taunton Deane and Daubenton and various authorities list them as ramosa or acephala varieties of Brassica oleracea. Acephala means without a head, and certainly, these plants have no distinctive head but are branching plants where we pick the sideshoots. In fact, the word sideshoot makes me realise how similar they are in form to bush tomatoes (though a totally different family of course). The sideshoots are harvested when young and tender and the more you take the more the plants seems to send out more sideshoots. The key to high yields, in both of these varieties, is to keep picking.
Picking is easy to keep doing as here, in the south-west of England, the home of Taunton Deane, the plant grows all winter and it’s been common to shake the snow off a plant before picking. Daubenton, or D’aubenton, was named by Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton (29 May 1716 – 1 January 1800). Also from France is the less well known Chou branchu du Poitou Vilmorin-Andrieux.
The reality with brassicas is that they are a mixed and confused family of plants and it’s only in recent years that botanists have started to sort them out by examining the genome.
Whatever the genetic background, these are kales that have been around a very long time. And that can only because they have been valued. They grow for years with little attention and keep producing tasty crops. To me, they taste a little nuttier than other brassicas.
Cultivating Perennial Kale
Taunton Deane is a tall architectural plant and I have planted mine in a flower bed where it produces lovely leaves that show off my flowers AND produces a crop of leaves.
I do nothing special with it in terms of feeding it. It gets a bit of compost thrown around the base in autumn. And in spring the flower beds get some organic fertiliser as a top dressing. I use Vitax Q4. After that, it fends for itself. The fact it has been grown for centuries tells me that this isn’t a plant that is going to be responsive to high levels of fertiliser. Its survived well before artificial fertilisers were invented and will continue like that today.
Because it is so tall Id recommend thinking about staking it. It will be OK in sheltered spots but a stake will help it if it is in an exposed spot.
Perennial Kale Propagation
In autumn it is easy to see how these plants have grown side branches and have become a bit bushy. If you pull these side branches downwards they will cleave off the main stem and being a heel of “bark” with them. Trim any loose rubbish off the heel and remove a few leaves. Too many leaves make it dehydrate before it grows roots.
Now push the stem deep into the soil or a pot of soil or compost. Some people say cover the pot with a clear plastic bag to stop it drying out. I don’t bother with this. Just put it in a shady spot out of the sun. By spring it will have rooted and can be transplanted. It’s that simple.
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Cucamelon (Melothria scabra)
Grape sized “mini melons” that taste of cucumber and lime! That’s, and heavy crops, are what cucamelons promise from this vigorous vine.
This is a vine from Mexico and Central America so it needs a bit of warmth. So if you’ve room for it in a greenhouse that’s probably the best conditions for it. But it’ll also do well in a sheltered sunny spot outdoors. Especially in the south.
The growth is quite deceiving. It looks dainty and unlikely to produce much fruit. But it’s a tough little thing that once it starts to climb or scramble through a bush, almost always delivers crops over a long season. It fruits from midsummer to autumn on a daily basis in many cases. It’s tasty though, so don’t expect all the fruit to get as far as the kitchen!
Any fruit that does make it to the kitchen can be sliced raw for salads, or dropped into a gin, Pimms or as an olive substitute in a dry martini.
Surplus fruit can be made into pickle, chutney or even jam.
Sowing time indoors or in a propagator is April – May. Though I tend to go earlier and sow in February or March for crops in my conservatory.
Cucamelon Cultivation in the UK
Cucamelon seed takes up to a month to germinate and require a temperature of 20-24C. So to stop them rotting many growers place the seed on its edge. This way they say it keeps moist without sitting in too wet. I’m fairly convinced that if you use a multi-purpose compost and keep it moist rather than soaking it makes no difference. But there’s no harm in following their advice.
The seed can be grown in modules or pots and once they have their first true leaves move them into bigger pots.
At this stage, the plants appear a bit weak and straggly. But don’t worry, provided they are healthy they’ll be OK.
Once the risk of frost has passed the plants can be transplanted into their growing positions in a tunnel or greenhouse. Spacing seems to vary between advisors but I suggest you go for 30-40 cm apart. Any closer and the fruit will be really small and picking takes much longer.
If you are growing in grow bags put two to a bag, (I don’t like grow bags personally as they tend to dry out too easily). Alternatively, grow them in large pots or containers and move them into their growing positions when it suits.
The stems need some support. I tend to prefer strings suspended from the greenhouse or tunnel exactly as I do for tomatoes. But they will need some encouragement to twine around them and you might have to tie them in to begin with. These are scrambling plants rather than true climbers. Some people use nets as support. I don’t like them personally as they tend to make picking a good bit harder.
Nutritionally this is a plant that likes potash, as do all flowering/fruiting plants. So feed it the same as a tomato. Regular liquid feeds with each watering. But note, most liquid tomato feed manufacturers recommend weekly feeding. Commercially I fed my toms, cues, peppers etc every day.
One great thing about cucamelons is their disease and pest resistance. They are bothered with few pest and diseases.
Cucamelon can grow to 3.5 metres in a season. So pinch them out before they become unmanageable. That’s both the main stem and side shoots which need pinching out when between a third and half a metre in length.
Cucamelons Are Perrenials
Being perennials the plants can be pruned in the autumn and kept for next year. Prune them back to about 20cm above the ground and then either bring the pot into a warm place for the winter OR lift the roots and store in a mix of dry compost in a frost-free dry place. Replant in the spring or when they look like they are trying to shoot.
The overwintered plants are reputed to be earlier and more prolific in their second year.
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Passion Fruit (Passiflora caerulea & P. edilus)
Passion fruit are often grown in the U.K. as a decorative plant and people forget that in sheltered spots it can produce tasty fruit here. You’ve probably seen Passion fruit in greengrocers. So why not grow your own?
Named Passiflora by the Spanish missionaries who found this climber in Brazil, because to them it symbolised the Christian passion and for its caerulean flower colour, this is a cold tolerant plant that, nonetheless, appreciates being planted against a south facing wall.
Of course, cold tolerant doesn’t mean that it will not be cut back by heavy frosts, but it will shoot again from the base in spring. And planting it in very well drained soil gives it an added advantage. When against a wall it’s the plant does best when supported by wires.
The final reward, after those wonderful large white and blue flowers are large yellow- orange or purple fruit, sometimes as large as hens eggs
Passion Flower Seed Sowing
The seed does best if sown in a warm spot or propagator at around 20-24C where germination can take six weeks or sometimes longer. Once pricked out into pots, avoiding root disturbance as much as possible, they can be hardened off before planting in their final growing position. Being a large climber only 1-2 plants are needed unless you’ve a large expanse of wall to fill.
Passion Flower Cultivation
To establish them it’s advisable to water during dry periods in the first year. Feeding is with a general purpose slow release fertiliser. Something higher in potash makes sense at it encourages flowering and fruiting.
Mulching will help the plant provided this doesn’t make the soil too damp. The aim is moisture retention with good drainage.
In warmer locations the plants are sometimes grown sprawling through a tree. It isn’t fussy about its support system.
Now give it time. Eventually the fruit appear and turn from green to orange. Then it’s time to lick and enjoy.
I’m taking a bit of poetic licence here, as this is a fruit and not a vegetable. But I love lemons and have grown them for quite a few years now.
Lemons are considerably more cold tolerant than many of us would believe. It’s hard to discover details of how to grow them in the UK though as every article I read tells you that they are not hardy. Thank goodness my plant cant access the internet!
Mine is now growing outside, has fruit on it, and has stood temperatures as low as minus 6C this winter. Having said that they do better with a bit of winter protection and it’s often recommended that they are planted in pots and brought indoors in winter. Mine is planted directly in the soil and I don’t plan on bringing it indoors. I just want to ensure it doesn’t read the articles that say it should die!
Breeders are also developing cultivars that tolerate our weather so look out for them as well.
Another consideration is the type of lemon. There are several types and some are more cold tolerant than others. The thicker-skinned fruit is from those varieties that tolerate the cold best.
My lemon is not the most frost tolerant type but is now grown on a sheltered south-facing wall out of the worse of the wind. It’s languished in a pot for too many years and really struggled indoors where it had scale insect that I just couldn’t clear. Since I’ve planted it out I notice birds searching for insects on it and I hope they will control the scale insect given a few more months. Scale insects don’t like the cold and wet so I’m also hoping that this will also improve things.
Two important facts to consider when planting lemons are that they like high humidity but don’t like to be waterlogged. They also love a warm sunny spot in summer.
The leaves on my plant have interveinal yellowing. This is called chlorosis and can be due to a number of reasons ranging from insect pests, a lack of nitrogen and too much lime in the soil. Now its planted outdoors in the soil I aim to increase nitrogen, improve the trace element situation (the soil alone might help this with regards iron, magnesium and manganese, if not I’ll add trace elements) and finally combat the insect issue. If this doesn’t work the cause is possibly down to a virus!
I’ll be giving my lemon an organic fertiliser scattered around its base in spring and following it with liquid feeds every few weeks as needed. I’m not going to be rigid about how it’s feed but let the plant give me clues. I’ll lot at its general demeanour, check the colour of leaves, it’s vigour and how many flowers are setting. Once you learn to read a plant it can tell you a lot about its needs.
Why bother with lemons?
For me, it’s more than just proving it can be done. I love lemons and this tree has cropped for several years and given me a lot of pleasure. Adding a homegrown lemon to my gin and tonic is a delight. And the fragrance of lemon flowers on a warm evening is something to remember on cold winter nights.
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Inca Berries aka Cape Gooseberry (Physalis peruviana)
You may not recognise the name of this particular plant snd it’s a fruit rather than a veg. But I suspect you have eaten it as part of a dessert in a restaurant. It’s that little orange fruit that sits in what looks like a wrapper of light brown papery skin. In fact, its a fruit that sits in its calyces (calyces is the plural of calyx).
The plant is in the tomato family and the fruit is around cherry tomato in size. And like the tomato, it crops over a long period, in this case from late summer right up to Christmas if you are in the right conditions. But, like tomatoes, it is frost susceptible and is easily killed by the first frost. Having said that, it is a perennial where the climate allows it to be.
Seed sowing in the UK can be as early as February and it can be planted out as soon as the frost risk has passed.
Inca, Peruviana, Cape … just which name is correct?
Cape gooseberries don’t originally come from the Cape of Good Hope, though they were grown there after being introduced in 1807. They were grown there commercially for many years and were used to make jam as well as being canned and eaten fresh.
The real home of Inca berries is Brazil. But they were naturalised in Chile and Peru and hence the peruviana name. The Incas apparently cultivated them and in 1774 the plant was brought back to England for the first time. Being able to cope with our climate, and looking unusual, head gardeners in the”big houses” soon started growing them for the tables of the aristocracy.
Also known as Poha berry, Goldenberry, Husk Cherry and Peruvian Ground Cherry the plant is now available worldwide and is used in the cuisines of many countries. People seem to love the tart, sweet, tangy flavours associated with Inca berries plus the novel way they are served with their calyces intact.
Inca Berry Cultivation
The seed can be sown in February / March in the UK, at 18C and takes 10-14 days to germinate. Prick it out into small pots and increase pot size until it can be planted outdoors after the last frost.
Being an attractive plant Inca berries can be grown in flower beds where they can make an ultimate height of a metre. The growth is rather lax and they need a bit of support if the stems aren’t to snap in strong winds. The ideal support in flower beds is a few twiggy hazel sticks or similar.
To encourage growth the plants are best pinched out at about 30cm and allowed to branch.
Feed them with dilute tomato feed. ie a high potash, low nitrogen feed about once a week. Keep the soil moist but not saturated.
The berries will be ready from early to mid-summer and are picked when the calyces are papery and fruit golden yellow.
A good way to eat them is straight from the plant .. or dipped in chocolate as a dessert accompaniment!
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Lemongrass is used in oriental cooking for the wonderful lemon flavour imparted by its edible stems.
I grow mine from seed and the first image shows a 12-month-old plant that was started in a greenhouse then brought out for the summer. I then repotted it and it is now over 2 metres high and looking magnificent in my lounge .. just a few feet from the kitchen!
Being a crop of tropical origin it’s a frost susceptible crop, so needs protection in winter. But thrives outdoors in summer where it enjoys basking in the sun.
I find it germinates best if kept moist and warm. A heated propagator is ideal for starting the seed, though a windowsill will often suffice. Once they germinate and have a monocot leaf around 2-3 inches high I move them into individual pots and grow them on, repotting as they outgrow pots.
Lemongrass enjoys plenty of moisture, but not standing in puddles! So water well every day and give a liquid feed as it grows. Once it comes back indoors reduce the water until the compost is kept just moist.
Some growers recommend cutting the foliage back to a few inches in autumn when the foliage turns brown. I’ve never seen much brown foliage so keep mine fed and watered and getting bigger!
It’s also possible to grow lemongrass from the stems bought in shops. Look for stems with a hint of a root growing from the base. Place in water or damp compost and see what happens. Frequently they will root and yu the grow it on as if it were from seed.
Cut whole stems at the base and remove surplus top growth. Take care as the leaves are sharp and give a nasty cut. It’s other name is barbed wire grass.
Talking of names there are many simply because the Cymbopogon (lemongrass) genus contains about 50 species. The most common ones grown for sale in the shops here seems to be Cymbopogon citratus and Cymbopogon flexuosus.
Citronella oil is produced from some lemongrass species.
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A vegetable that originates from the Near East, has metre long edible roots and tastes like oysters! That’s Black Salsify. The hispanica part of the name comes from the fact it was grown in Spain when first brought to Europe and it was far more popular in centuries ago. In fact, at one time it was though to cure Bubonic plague and snakebite. I’ve not tested it for either purpose!
Today salsify is something I see in Victorian gardening books, mentioned by trendy chefs but never see in the supermarkets. Supermarkets might sell it if they could get hold of supplies but it isn’t grown commercially in the UK. Our European neighbours do grow it commercially however and you can see occasional fields of it in the Netherlands, Germany, France and Belgium. But it’s not an easy crop to harvest on a field scale because the roots are long and thin, so not well suited to mechanical harvesting. That’s where gardeners come in!
Salsify seed is available in the UK as I discovered this week when visiting a small garden centre. So my plan is to sow it in late February – March, though sowing up to May is OK. As germination is erratic I’ll allow plenty more seed than the number of plants I want and possibly sow in 2-3 batches. The recommendation I’ve read is for rows to be 12 inches apart with the plants at 4-inch spacing. But I’m more likely to grow them in blocks across my No-Dig beds I don’t like long rows across the width of a garden, much preferring to grow in bed width blocks that keep the weeds under control.
Scorzonera prefers moist but well-drained fertile deep soils .. so don’t try them in shallow raised beds. I shall go No-Dig as I can better depend on the soil structure this way.
Harvest is from September onwards. Provided the roots are undamaged they will keep in a frost-free shed or garage for most of the winter. Some people overwinter them and harvest the leaves that grow in the spring. If your soil is at all heavy, and root harvesting difficult, this might be a better plan. In that case, consider blanching them under an upturned bucket!
The flowers are apparently also edible so I might grow some in the flower beds. I understand the flowers are quite beautiful.
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Luffas are edible tender vines from the cucumber family that produce both an edible fruit and, when older and more fibrous can be used to make loofahs, the sponge-like product sold for bathroom use. For simplicity, I am using the term luffa to denote the plant and loofah the “sponge”.
In the UK we can buy seed from two species of Luffa. L. cylindrica, which, as its name suggests is cylindrical in shape and L. acutangula which has better flavour and is shaped like a ridged cucumber. Because each species is better for either eating or loofah production it’s preferable to choose the right seed for the purpose we have in mind. Having said that both will serve both purposes, though in both cases the secondary purpose is inferior to its primary purpose. Where the flavour of the fruit is a little bitter it can be improved a bit by salting the cut fruit to remove the bitter flavour before eating.
Irrespective of the species chosen both have deeply lobed leaves and tend to sprawl rather than climb. Hence it is often advised that they should be trained over trellis rather than up a bamboo. My personal preference is to use a string and twist them up it in exactly the same way as I grow cucumbers. Indeed, in many ways, I would suggest you grow them almost exactly as you would a cucumber.
Overseas there are many cultivars of both species but in the UK the seed houses tend to offer only the species and not named varieties. That might change in the near future if luffas become more popular. This may well come about with hybrid varieties as they tend to readily hybridise, even over a distance.
Luffas carry both male and female flowers on the same plant. where only males are apparent it is usually because of adverse growing conditions.
Luffa: germination. growing on and cultivation
Luffas are warmth-loving plants from tropical and sub-tropical climes. Hence when we grow them we need to take this into consideration. They need to be germinated at around 75-85 degrees F (26-30 degrees C) and a short presoaking in warm water often enhances germination rates which can be sporadic. My recommendation is to plant 2-3 seeds per small pot and remove the weakest when they have fully emerged. Pot on into larger pots as you would with cucumbers until the plant can be planted in a warm sheltered position outside or, preferably under glass. My preference is to use a bottomless pot in the final instance and put that in the final growing position as this prevents growth setbacks.
Once in their final growing positions, I recommend feeding the same as cucumbers. Many growers say this should be once a week with sufficient water between feeds. My view is that both luffas and cues do better from daily feeds of tomato feed.
Luffa: fruiting and picking
In good conditions, luffas require no help to pollinate. Insects will do this for you. Hand pollinate only if really necessary. If this is required it usually indicates other issues such as over or underwatering, low temperatures etc.
Like all plants, there is a limit on how many fruit the plant can cope with. In the case of luffas, it is around 6-7 fruit at any one time. Hence if you pick them for eating they will keep fruiting. Picking fro eating should be done when the fruit is 12 inches long or less.
Luffas: Loofah production
As the fruit grow they become more fibrous and darker in colour. If you want a dark coloured loofah leave it on the plant to age. Once picked you need to remove the skin, pulp and seeds. The easiest way is to damage the now tough skin before peeling it away. Throwing it at a wall of hard floor is the traditional way of breaking the skin. Then use your fingers to remove as much pulp and seeds as possible.
Soaking the loofah in warm water will ensure ay residual flesh rots and is easy to remove in running water. Once done allow the loofah to dry in the sun.
More Unusual Vegetables To Grow To Follow ….
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