As the name implies, the soapwort is a herb that can actually be used as a natural soap. It is a perennial European native herb which has become completely at home in the USA where it can be found growing in moist ditches, along roadsides, in waste places, near old home sites, in meadows, and as a planted ornamental in many gardens.
What is soapwort?
Soapwort, or bouncing bet, was originally brought over by the colonists to be used as a soap substitute. When bruised or boiled in water, the leaves produce a lather with detergent properties that even removes grease.
Soapwort spreads vigorously, it has prolific attractive and aromatic flowers and can be used as a ground cover. Happily grows in any moderately fertile well-drained soil whether in sun or semi-shade but it does prefer a neutral to alkaline soil.
The fragrant flowers of the soapwort have five white to pinkish or red showy petals borne in large clusters that bloom from June to October. The leaves are slightly hairy, the stem is smooth and swollen at the joints. It forms colonies from underground rhizomes so sends up suckers everywhere.
Also known as the Saponaria, the plants are useful in the wild garden, in the bed or border, and even to carpet a slope or bank. Other names include bouncing bet, sweet betty, wild sweet william, bruisewort, dog cloves, old maids’ pink, soap root, latherwort, fuller’s herb, fuller’s grass, foam dock, gill-run-by-the-street saponary, lady-by-the-gate, crow soap, hedge pink and farewell summer.
Some natural and safe uses for soapwort when doing your laundry
- Harvest the leaf, stem and even the root of the soapwort, cover in rainwater or distilled water and boil for 30 minutes. The result is a soapy liquid that can be used as a natural detergent. It is especially suitable for washing delicate items including old and vintage fabrics – even old tapestries.
- In ancient Roman times, soapwort was used as a water softener.
- The medicinal properties of Saponaria are due to its hormone-like saponins. It has been used in the treatment of dry cough, bronchitis and some cases of asthma. The plant has a traditional reputation for both the internal and external treatment of skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, acne and boils. Its use as a remedy for gout and arthritis is due to the anti-inflammatory action of the saponins.
- For psoriasis and acne – make a concoction of 2 cups of leaves, stems and root boiled in 2 pints of water for 15 minutes. Strain, cool and use as a lotion on affected areas. Do not take internally.
- For eczema – the simple act of rubbing the leaves and stems together vigorously to make soapy bubbles will soothe any eczema areas when rubbed on and allowed to dry.
A final word of caution is that soapwort is purgative and mildly poisonous in large doses. Long term internal use could cause gastric irritation.
- Use flowers and leaves fresh as body soap.
- The root can be harvested in the spring and dried for later herb use. They can be sliced up and dried in the sun. The roots are richest in saponin. One of the saponins in this plant is proving of interest in the treatment of cancer.
- Dried soapwort flowers are lovely for potpourri
- Use the flowers of the soapwort as an air freshener for all the rooms in the house.
- The leave, stem and root can be harvested and used as a shampoo for hair and a face or skin wash. Pick enough of the herb to fill a big pot – cover with water and simmer for 20 minutes. Keep covered while allowing the liquid to cool to warm. Use to wash your hair (but be careful to keep out of your eyes) and to cleanse the skin. Soapwort will repair dry and damaged hair and will soothe and soften your skin.