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Growing Herbs in Texas: Soapwort Plant

10/9/2009 2:13:12 PM

Tags: Growing Herbs in Texas, Cynthia Meredith, Soapwort, Fall, Texas, My Garden

C.MeredithCynthia Meredith has been gardening with herbs, reading about herbs, and discussing herb gardening in Texas for more than 20 years. She has owned The Herb Cottage ( www.theherbcottage.com ) for over 10 years, selling herb plants to people all over our state.

The early fall continues with ups and downs in temperatures and humidity. Nothing unusual for this part of Texas this time of year. Today it's very warm and humid with a moist southeast wind right off the gulf. If I didn't have a calendar, I might think it was still summer. That is, if I didn't look outdoors at the herb garden.

With the shorter days and the cooler nights we've had, plus all the rain, the herb plants are growing in leaps and bounds. My Greek oregano, which was pruned heavily in August, is now almost as large as it was before pruning, minus the flower stalks. The garlic chives ,which were looking very puny during the drought with very small clumps and no new growth, are now big and healthy. Some are even starting to put on flower stalks. The ones I dug and potted for sales are looking great, too. Garlic chives are such a hardy herb. It's sometimes called Chinese leeks. In Chinese grocery stores, the budded flower stalks are sold as "Gow Choy". I use the flowers in salads and herbal vinegars and I use the leaves in tuna salad, eggs, soups, green salads, potato salads, and baked potatoes.  

Another herb that is growing profusely is soapwort (Saponaria officinalis). It is a low-growing, ground cover type of plant that runs as vigorously as mint, if not more so. It puts on a pretty pink flower in the late summer most years. This year, I guess the heat was just too much for it because it did not flower much. I did cut it back to the ground in August because it was looking very peaked. Now, the growth is thick and lush green. It spreads by underground runners and is intruding into the salad bed I planted nearby.

10-12-09-1
Original soapwort bed. See it creeping out!!

The leaves and roots of soapwort are not edible, but the leaves and the roots are used to make a mild soap. The roots have the highest concentration of the soap-making component called saponin. The most common method for making soap is to add two handfuls of the plant, with or without the roots, to about 3 cups of water and simmer the mixture for about half an hour; strain out the plant matter. You now have a soapy liquid you can use as shampoo, as soap for the bath or to wash antique linens and lace.

10-12-2009-2
Soapwort flower.

It is said that the Romans used soapwort to soften water in their baths, the Syrians used it for washing wool products, and the Swiss used it to bathe their sheep before shearing. The National Trust in Britain used soapwort for decades to clean delicate tapestries and linens because most modern detergents were too harsh. It has also been used as a treatment for psoriasis and acne.

10-12-2009-3
The soapwort is coming up at the base of this licorice plant (Glycyrrhiza glabra).

The plant can be somewhat invasive if it is happy in the garden. It is hardy to Zone 6 and is evergreen in my garden. I like it even though it likes to come up in neighboring areas. It does quite nicely in a big pot, and that's a good way to grow it to keep it under control.



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