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Updated on July 29, 2012

Heart shaped leaves

Photo by N. Serra
Photo by N. Serra

Confessions of a brown thumb gardener

My parents were great farmers. They had an acre of land in Alabama from which they fed the whole town. Few people ever left our house without a batch of turnip greens or a paper bag full of snap beans. We shelled a lot of black-eyed peas while watching TV every night and husked corn while sitting on our front porch and talking to the neighbors.

We had pecan trees and peach trees but the best trees were the fig trees. I haven't had fresh home grown fig since I left Alabama. Going into the backyard and plucking a hand full of figs was a treat for visitors who came our way. Our large family had another treat. Think of fig preserves and hot homemade biscuits or fig preserves with sharp cheddar cheese.

I was a gatherer and not a sower so it wasn't until the summer that my Yankee cousin came down from Illinois that I realized I had been born with a brown thumb. After we had eaten a sweet peach from one of the peach trees my cousin decided we should go up by the house and plant our seed on the side of the house where there were no trees.

We did just that. Both of us planted our seeds. Before my cousin left for Illinois, her peach tree started to sprout. Later she would write me to ask how our peach trees were doing. I would have to report that her tree was doing well but my tree never appeared above the ground. When my peach tree never sprouted I began to suspect I hadn't inherited my parent's farming genes. It became more obvious as I grew older that I wasn't endowed with any green thumb DNA.

I am 70 now and still dig in the dirt hoping for a miracle. My family looks at my puny efforts and perhaps they feel sorry for me. My children give me seeds and plants to encourage my dirt digging. When something does actually grow I become overly ecstatic and tend to brag.

My neighbor's vine

Photo by N.Serra
Photo by N.Serra

I was struggling with my little patch of ground behind my condo when a new neighbor moved into the connecting unit. He was from China and couldn't speak English. Almost immediately I saw him doing a strange thing. He was tying a rope from the upstairs deck of the condo to the back fence. Soon he had about five lines of rope going over his little piece of dirt. What was he doing? The homeowner's association forbade us to hang our laundry outside so it could get that wonderful smell of the laundry I used to hang on the line in Alabama. Our line wasn't attached to the house but hung between two pecan trees. I had gotten thrown across the backyard when lightning struck while I took in the laundry one day. Maybe my Chinese neighbor didn't know about the homeowner association rules?

A short time passed and I saw vines beginning to grow and wrap themselves around the rope tied from fence to deck. The vines began to form beautiful green heart shaped leaves. The leaves began to harbor large yellow flowers that glowed in the sun.

"What a beautiful plant," I thought as each morning it began to grow more magnificent.

"I must find out what kind of plant this is." I became obsessed with finding out what my neighbor was growing. I looked on the internet for pictures. I even went so far as to write an email to my grand-nephew in Shanghai with a photo of the vines attached. No one could identify the plant.

An edible gourd

Photo by N.Serra
Photo by N.Serra

The flowers changed to little things that, at first, I thought were miniature watermelons. Later they looked more like cucumbers. And then they looked like zucchini.

I volunteered as a teacher at a local English Second Language (ESL) class and left a note on the neighbor's door inviting him to come for free classes. The first day of class, when I saw the family walk in the door, I startled everyone by running over to his young daughter.

"What is the name of the plant you have in your backyard?"

I really got a crazy look because they didn't know I was their neighbor. I ran to get my cell phone and showed them the picture I had taken of their strange plant. The Dad looked at my photo and laughed. He said something in Mandarin and the daughter whipped out her cell phone and looked up the translation and showed it to me.


All I knew about Loofah was that we bathed with it. Once I realized it was a Loofah plant I was able to get on the internet and do the research. I found out that Loofah is also called "Chinese okra." Loofah is a gourd that can be used for just about everything from bathing to making hats or birdhouses. It's also edible. In fact you can eat the fruit of the vine as well as the leaves and flowers. One recipe called for battering and deep frying the flowers. Another used the leaves in the same way we used spinach and the fruit can be eaten cooked or added raw to a salad.

When the Loofah made its way to my side of the fence I told them it's an American custom, "Whatever grows over to my side of the fence belongs to me."

I then had to ask how to cook it. They thought I was funny and laughed. My neighbor's daughter told me, "Cook with egg."

My grand-nephew went out to find some Loofah to eat and reported back all the good dishes he ate for the next week that were prepared with Loofah. He was excited about finding a new food to eat. He had already had a snake dinner so the novelty was going out of eating at so many good Chinese restaurants.

When the Loofah on my side of the fence matured enough to eat, I gathered it and sautéed the Loofah, with onion and eggs in olive oil. It was definitely good for food.

I saved the seeds from my neighbor's Loofah plant and the next year I had Loofah to give away and show off. I wrote stories about my Loofah, took photos and pretty much bored everyone with my obsession with this plant. Nevertheless, I am proud. I've accomplished a feat worthy of any brown thumb gardener.

My first loofah patch

Photo by N.Serra
Photo by N.Serra

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