Yes, we are here!

At MOTHER EARTH LIVING and MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we have been educating folks about the benefits of self-reliance for 50 years. That includes researching and sourcing the best books and products to help individuals master the skills they need in times like these and beyond. Our online store is open and we are here to answer any questions you might have. Our customer service staff is available Monday through Friday from 8a.m.-5p.m. CDT. We can be reached at 1-800-456-6018 or by email. Stay safe!

Herb to Know: Soapwort

| June/July 1997

  • Photograph by J. G. Strauch, Jr.

Saponaria officinalis
• (sap-uh-NAIR-ee-uh off-iss-ih-NAL-iss)
• Family Caryophyllaceae
• Hardy perennial

Here’s a tough and beautiful herb with an unusual feature: soapsuds. The Assyrians made a soap from it as far back as the eighth century b.c. Later, European woolen mills used it for shrinking and thickening woven cloth, and soapwort plants still mark the sites of the old mills. Today, even with the plethora of synthetic cleaning agents available, conservators choose soapwort as a gentle cleanser for valuable antique fabrics, furniture, and pictures. Apart from their use as a cleanser, the suds also gave early Pennsylvania Dutch beers a foamy head.

The genus Saponaria comprises about twenty species of perennial herbs native to Europe and southwestern Asia. S. officinalis is probably ­native to western Asia, but it has been grown in European gardens for centuries both for its soap and for medicinal purposes. It is naturalized throughout the United States and Canada in sunny fields and along railroads and roadsides.

Clumps of robust, erect 3-foot stems arise from thick white underground rhizomes. Smooth, lance-shaped opposite green leaves with pointed tips and three prominent veins are borne on short stalks. They measure 2 to 3 inches long by 1/3 inch wide. Loose clusters of ­1-inch-wide, showy pink or whitish flowers bloom in mid- to late summer. Each flower has a long, cylindrical green calyx, five petals that are narrowed at the base, ten stamens, and two styles. Odorless in daytime, they emit a clove scent at night which attracts moth pollinators. Maud Grieve, author of A Modern Herbal (1931), noted “a bitter and slightly sweet taste, followed by a ­persistent pungency and a numbing sensation in the mouth”. The fruit is a four-toothed capsule.

Double forms such as the one shown here can be found growing wild. Both the single and double forms are attractive in the garden in the middle or back of the border. The light pink flowers go well with almost everything, and the green foliage contrasts nicely with ferny gray artemisias or yarrows or the fine green foliage and blue flower spikes of hyssop, for example.

The generic name Saponaria comes from the Latin word sapo, “soap”. Common names that allude to the plant’s soapiness include latherwort, fuller’s herb, and lady’s-washbowl. Officinalis means “from the (druggist’s) storeroom” and refers to its medicinal uses, as does the alternate common name bruisewort. The names old-maid’s-pink and wild sweet William seem to acknowledge the flowers’ resemblance and close relationship to pinks (Dianthus spp.). The perplexing (but common) name bouncing Bet may be soap-related, too, supposedly coming from the fact that barmaids (generally called Bet or Betsy) used leafy stalks to scour beer bottles in old England. Whether the barmaids, leaf stalks, or bottles bounced is unclear. Jo Ann Gardner, in The Heirloom Garden (1992), considers the name an apt description of the way the plant “moves about by way of its creeping roots”.

Subscribe today and save 58%

Get the latest on Healthy Living and Natural Beauty!

Mother Earth LivingRedefine beauty and embrace holistic living with Mother Earth Living by your side. Each issue  provides you with easy, hands-on ways to connect your life with the natural world -- from eating seasonally to culinary and medicinal uses of herbs; from aromatherapy and DIY cosmetics to yoga and beyond. Start your journey to holistic living today and you’ll discover all the best and latest information you want on choosing natural remedies and practicing preventive medicine; cooking with a nutritious and whole-food focus; creating a nontoxic home; and gardening for food, wellness and enjoyment. Subscribe to Mother Earth Living today to get inspired on the art of living wisely and living well.

Save Money & a Few Trees!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You’ll save an additional $5 and get six issues of Mother Earth Living for just $19.95! (Offer valid only in the U.S.)

Or, choose Bill Me and pay just $24.95.

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter


click me