Heidi Cardenas is a freelance writer and gardener in Lake County, Illinois, with a background in human resources. She has written about gardening for various online venues and enjoys The Herb Companion’s valuable resources.
I recently saw soapwort mentioned in The Moneyless Man by Mark Doyle. Doyle described how he might possibly wash dishes and clothes during his self-imposed year without money. This made me curious. After researching this herb I’ve decided to grow it this year. I really like the idea of going out to the garden, picking a couple of leafy branches off an herb plant, and using them to wash my hair, give the dog a bath or wash laundry.
Soapwort Description: This herb has been used through the centuries as a cleaning agent and medicinal plant. Saponaris officinalis is most commonly known as soapwort, but it is also known as bouncing bet, farewell summer, fuller’s herb, lady’s washbowl, sweet william, latheroot and old maid’s pink. Soapwort is an herbaceous perennial related to carnations and native to the temperate areas of Europe, Asia and North America. It grows in the wild in open areas of forests and glens, reaching up to 2 feet high with oval shaped leaves and small, fragrant pink five-petalled flowers that have a light fruity scent. It is grown commercially for its saponin content, which is a lathering agent used in cleansers and beer production.
Cultivation and Harvesting: Sow soapwort seeds in spring when the soil has warmed up or plant root sections. Soapwort grows best in sandly soil and suffers in wet conditions or heavy soil. Seeds sprout easily in warm, moist garden beds in partial shade or bright filtered light to sunny locations. The seedlings grow quickly with consistent watering and well-drained soil without much other attention, and mature plants spread through creeping underground rhizomes. It can get out of control and become invasive so using controls such as planting in garden containers or sinking barrier borders are recommended. Snip or pinch flowers from plants for salads, garnishes and summer drinks. Dig up roots in early autumn for use in cleaning preparations. Pick green plant parts like leafy branches all season long to use in cleaning solutions. Soapwort multiplies quickly and after a few years growth, harvesting roots by pulling up every third plant is recommended. A mature stand of soapwort will supply gardeners with a consistent supply of natural cleansing matter.
Soapwort is a quick spreading plant that produces lather when swished in water.
Photo by H. Zell/Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Medicinal, Personal Care and Culinary Uses: Soapwort’s historical uses include cleaning sheep wool before shearing, washing newly-woven cloth to thicken it (where it gets its associated name fuller’s herb from the process called fulling) and treating skin afflictions. Growers can use it to make a natural, gentle cleansing lather by swishing bruised leaves in warm water or mixing powder from dried roots in hot water. Some easy recipes for soapwort include mixing soapwort and chamomile flowers for a mild natural shampoo, adding a few drops of essential oil of lavender to a soapwort preparation to wash baby clothes and delicate laundry items, and combining mint foliage and soapwort foliage or roots for a gentle pet bath preparation. Cut open a large aloe vera spear and squeeze out the natural gel-like substance to add to soapwort shampoo preparations and add a few drops of your favorite essential oil to scent soapwort wash preparations.
Soapwort medicinal treatments include liquid decoctions made by steeping foliage and roots in hot water or making poultices or compresses from blanched leaves to soothe and clear skin rashes, poison ivy and acne. Soapwort is used in herbal preparations for cough remedies but should be used with care as it can be irritating when ingested.
To use in food, add soapwort flowers to fruit salads and sweet dishes, aspics and summer drinks like lemonade.