Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Soapwort - Herb of the Week

Just in time for Spring Cleaning --
I thought I would detail Soapwort as Herb of the Week.
Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis), also known as Bouncing Bet and Wild Sweet William, is a lovely plant that makes a great border in any ornamental or herb garden.  The narrow, bright green, oval leaves grow to 4 inches long.  It bears pale pink flowers in clusters form mid-summer to fall.  The plant can get between 12 and 36 inches tall with a spread of 24 inches.  Cultivars including ‘Dazzler’ have creamy splotches on the leaves and ‘Rura Plena’ with double, deep pink flowers are also available.
The stems and roots of this plant contain high concentrations of Saponins which when extracted works just as commercial soap does.  This is where the name comes from.  Historically it was what early settlers used prior to the production of commercial soap in the 1800s.  It is still popular to use for washing in the Middle East.  Museums use it to clean tapestries, wood furniture and pictures.  You can us it to wash delicate items too!
The use of Soapwort goes back perhaps as early as the 8th century B.C.  The name comes from the fact roots produce a foamy lather when mixed with water.   Historically it was used for washing woolens and for washing sheep when shearing.  In Medieval times fullers used it to finish or size cloth.  It was once used to treat a number of ailments from rheumatism to syphilis, but is no longer recommended as large quantities are capable of destroying red blood cells if taken internally.
To Grow
Hardy in zones 2 to 8 the plant is a perennial that prefers full sun, but will tolerate part shade.  It likes a neutral to alkaline loamy soil that is well drained and a bit moist.  It can be propagates by softwood cutting, division and seed.  Always set seed or started plants after the soil has warmed and threat of frost has passed.  Avoid planting by ponds as saponins are poisonous to fish.
To Use
The leafy stem should be harvested in summer throughout the growing season.  Wait until late fall to harvest the rhizomes or roots.  All can be dried for later use.  Soapwort is generally upsetting to the digestive system and should not be taken internally.  Although the Saponins make it less than tasty, as a soap substitute it is wonderful.  You can use it to make shampoos, laundry soaps and other cleaning products.  You generally add a scent to these products because soapwort on its own does not smell that great.

Soapwort Washing Solution
½ oz. dried crushed soapwort root (1 oz. fresh root)
    Or 2 large handfuls of roughly chopped fresh stems
1 ½ pints of water (3 cups)
A bit of rose or lavender water or Eau de Cologne (to cover the smell of soapwort)

Soak the soapwort in water overnight.  Bring water and soapwort to a boil in an enamel pot and simmer 20 minutes.  Allow to cool and strain.  Will keep for a week in an airtight container.  Can also be used as a rinse to relieve itchy skin.
Use this to wash your hair (just remember to keep it out of eyes), your clothing or even your pet. Rinse with clear water.
Soapwort & Herb Shampoo
This is a very fragrant and stimulating for your scalp. It prevents dandruff and promotes hair growth.
1 cup soapwort
1 cup Nettle
1 cup Spearmint
1 cup Rosemary
and for a rich chestnut appearance cloves
about 4 cups water, distilled


Place soapwort in a glass or enameled pan pour over it 1-1 1/2 cups water. Bring this to a boil and lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Cover it and let it steep until cool strain it into a bottle that closes tightly.  Take the three other herbs and cloves and place them in a glass or enamel pan and pour 2 cups of water over them.  Simmer them after bringing to a boil the same way.  Let them steep for at least 2 hours, then strain.  The liquid left will be very dark brown. Mix this with the soapwort mixture at a 1:1 combination.

When you add the nettle, rosemary, spearmint and cloves let it infuse for at least 60 minutes but overnight is better. In the morning you can add a couple drops of your favorite Essential Oil to add fragrance. Pour into bottles.  Shake well before using.  This won't give you a head full of suds as commercial ones will but the cleansing is undeniable.

This blend is essentially for brunettes.  If you have lighter hair, substitute chamomile for the rosemary and lemon or lemongrass for the cloves.  If you want deeper conditioning you can add fennel to it as well.


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  2. Thank you for this :) I've been using soapnuts for a while to wash clothes and pots but it doesn't seem right to ship them from the other side of the world. Soapwort sounds like the perfect solution to natural cleaning if I can grow it in my garden! I am looking forward to this summer :)


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