For many in Lebanon, leefeh is a nostalgic tradition that brings back vivid memories of a simpler time. Head of the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik’s agricultural sciences department, Marc Beyrouthy, describes the life of the plant
Leefeh is an annually flowering vine belonging to the cucurbitaceae family, the relation of cucumbers, watermelons and pumpkins. Even though it was once cultivated on a small-scale in Lebanon, it’s not an indigenous plant, but thought to originate from India. Scientifically speaking the leefeh is the fruit of either luffa acutangula or luffa aegyptiaca. However the latter is more cultivated in Lebanon.
Leefeh is a plant that loves continuous sun (though it can tolerate partial shade) and is not frost enduring. It is quite a vigorous vine that can reach up to 10 meters. The leefeh fruit can be incredibly heavy, so it is best grown on a trellis or fence. The plants are grown from seeds and require between four to six months to achieve full maturity. Then the dry fruit is fibrous with a sponge-like structure. The plant only requires irrigation in the first stages of cultivation.
In many countries such as China and Vietnam the fruits and leaves are eaten as vegetables, when harvested young. In some countries they are also used as a medicinal plant to treat many ailments. The crushed dried leaves are also used as an insect repellent due to their odor. However, in order to create the loofah sponge, the fruits should be fully ripened when harvested. At this stage, the fruits are very fibrous and make a perfect sponge. To obtain the sponge, the gourds should be picked as they start to turn yellow and when they become light in weight. They should be pealed as soon as possible in order to obtain light-colored sponges.
The sponge of the leefeh plant is a common sight around Lebanon. After an illustrative life, of fast-growing vines birthing enormous weighty marrow-like vegetables, its final resting place is the mini-markets of every street corner of the country, where they hang from the ceiling for sale in their skeletal-like sponge form. The cultivation of leefeh exists in Lebanon, though only on a small scale, with many families still growing the plant in home gardens, which they dry, cut and share with the family. But the plants themselves have never been grown on a large scale in the country, preferring the fertile lands of the Nile region. Traders from South Lebanon bring leefeh from Egypt and sell to one of the country’s 12 factories where it’s dried and cut into various forms ready to supply the washrooms and kitchens of the entire country.
“WHEN I WAS YOUNG I HAD MY VERY OWN LEEFEH”
Journalist and director of Agenda Culturel, Emile Nasr shares his childhood memories of leefeh
The leefeh is a magnificent plant. Annually, it grows one, even two floors high to spread itself over the rooftop. The leefeh is children’s delight and happiness. Imagine my joy when planting a seed in March, only to play with its big leaves on the terrace by September. The leefeh is a gift from nature, covering any cracked or badly painted walls as it snakes over them. To my child’s eyes it climbs at the speed of the toy racing car that Santa Clause offered me that winter.
The leefeh doesn’t need water to grow beautifully. It only needs good soil; it refuses to grow in a pot. The sun and the sea are its allies. Plant it in Beit Meri and it will refuse to grow. Any child can offer these simple conditions and grow their leefeh. Nothing compares to the childhood happiness of counting the yellowed leaves to tell my mother that my leefeh had kept its promise.
One summer, an uncle of mine recommended that I hack my leefeh at its base to insert a clove of garlic. That summer, my leefeh grew wonderfully and all of my neighbors admired it. I was so proud of my uncle but most importantly of my leefeh. To see it blossom so rapidly, whilst children take years to grow, the leefeh creates a sort of complicity with a child that no other plant can provide.
But the leefeh is not a kid’s plant alone; parents also love it. To get a glimpse of the interest that grownups have towards the leefeh, you should have seen my mother taking her morning coffee with the neighbors under my leefeh’s leaves. Its death entails the painful task of ripping the leefeh that clings onto every facet of the wall.
I don’t share the artist’s point of view of turning the leefeh into a lampshade despite how pleasant it might be, for the simple reason that it is not the leefeh’s proper function. Let it be known once and for all that the leefeh is children’s summer joy and the only way to stay clean throughout the year.