Cleanliness is next to godliness, even in history. Plants have helped keep us clean, while providing a little loveliness in our gardens. The crushed leaves or roots of this nifty little plant have been used as a soap for washing people and clothes for centuries.
Where the phosphates in modern detergents hold dirt and oil suspended in water long enough to rinse your clothes clean, soapwort does something similar, only gently and naturally. Saponaria officinalis contains saponins in both roots and leaves, the plant is like nature's little bar of soap.
Growing soapwort may be a very nice way for you to incorporate some eco-friendly cleaning practices into your household chores while inviting an attractive and low-maintenance plant into your herb patch.
The soapwort plant usually has a single straight stem grows to a height of 60cm (24in). The plant has oval shaped, basil-like leaves that grow opposite to each other on the stem. The leaves are pointed at the end, but the borders are even and smooth.
Between the period July and September, the plant bears flowers that have five petals. The colours of the soapwort flowers vary from whitish pink to rose and are approximately 2.5cm (1in) in width. The flowers grow in bunches at the pinnacle of the stems. The flowers appear in June and continue blooming until early September but the best time to admire their grace is July. Not only do they look pretty but also emit a pleasant and intriguing spicy clove-like scent seducing night moths which visit the flowers after dusk.
A trial of 25 native plant species carried out at the University Botanic Garden in Cambridge ranked soapwort as the second most popular nectar source for butterfly species, with a very high nectar secretion rate and second only to purple loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria in the number of butterfly species that it attracted. Not only that - it's also virtually slug-proof.
Sowing: Sow in spring or autumn.
Seed can be sown at most times of year, apart from the very hottest and coldest months. The ideal temperatures are around 15 to 20°C (59 to 68°F). They are best sown early, from November to March in gentle heat; the plant will be fully established before the following winter. They can be sown in June to July if placed out of direct sun. Germination usually takes 14 to 30 days. Sowing to Germination: 4 to 8 weeks. Germination to Transplant: 4 to 6 weeks
Fill cells or pots with a free draining seed compost, stand the containers in water to moisten thoroughly, then drain. Sow the seeds on the surface of the compost. The seeds need light to germinate so ‘Just cover’ with the lightest sprinkling of sieved soil or a fine layer of vermiculite.
Make sure the compost is moist and not wet. Use a propagator or seal in a polythene bag until after germination which usually takes 14 to 30 days at 15 to 20°C (59 to 68°F).
Saponaria usually germinate within 30 days, but if there is no germination, put the container somewhere cold, at around -4 to 4°C ( 24 to 39°F) for 2 to 4 weeks. Then bring back into warmth, the change in temperature will trigger germination.
Remove the polythene bag once the first seedlings appear. When they are large enough to handle, transplant them to 7cm (3in) pots to grow on. Remember to hold the seedlings by the leaves and not the stem. Plant out into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer, after the last expected frosts. Space 40 cm (16in) apart into a well drained soil in full sun.
Saponaria prefers full sun. Winter survival is dependent on the plant growing in well-drained soil. Do not fertilize during growing season. Bone meal worked into surrounding soil in early spring is all they need.
Cut plants back by about half after they are finished blooming to maintain a compact habit. This may also provide the added benefit of sporadic repeat bloom in late summer.
Mature plants spread through creeping underground rhizomes and in perfect conditions can get out of control and become invasive so using controls such as planting in garden containers or sinking barrier borders are recommended. It readily reseeds itself and will spread rapidly in a favourable situation. Prompt shearing as the flowers fade keeps it tidy and prevents reseeding.
Clumps may be easily divided in late summer or early spring.
Suitable for rockeries, ground cover, walls, borders, edging paths, walls and containers.
Low Maintenance, Gravel Gardens. Attractive to bees and butterflies. Evergreen.
Saponaria is a genus of about 20 species of perennial herbs in the Caryophyllaceae, native to the Mountains of southern Europe (Spain, South France, Italy and Alps) and southwest Asia. The genus is closely related to Lychnis and Silene, being distinguished from these by having only two (not three or five) styles in the flower.
The plant is vespertine, which is a term used in the life sciences to indicate something of, relating to, or occurring in the evening. In botany, a vespertine flower is one which opens or blooms in the evening. The flowers smell like cloves.
The genus name Saponaria is derived from the Latin sapo, meaning 'soap', which, like its common name Soapwort, refers to its utility in cleaning; the species plant Saponaria officinalis, a larger, more upright plant was used to make soap. From this same Latin word is derived the name of the toxic substance saponin, contained in the roots.
When Linnaeus invented the binomial system of nomenclature, he gave the specific name 'officinalis' to plants (and sometimes animals) with an established medicinal, culinary, or other use. The word officinalis is derived from the Latin officina meaning a storeroom (of a monastery) for medicines and necessaries. It literally means 'of or belonging in an officina', and that it was officially recognised as a medicinal herb. It conjures up images of a storeroom where apothecaries and herbalists stored their herbs.
There are innumerable common names relating to the plants use as a soap, such as Bouncing Bet, Fuller's-herb, Lady's-washbowl, Latherwort, Sheepweed and Old-maid's-pink.
There are many other local, country names such as Sweet Betty, Mock Gilliflower, Wild Sweet William. It is also known as Hedge Pink, it can be found beside streams and in damp woods and hedgerows.
The crushed leaves or roots of Saponaria officinalis have been used for washing people and clothes for centuries.
They were used to wash the Turin Shroud, which probably helped in its preservation because soapwort contains a fungicide. It is still used today in cleaning old fabrics. Museum conservators still use soapwort extracts for cleaning fragile, priceless fabrics not able to withstand modern soaps and are reported to have been used to clean the Bayeaux tapestry.
In some places farmers washed their sheep with soapwort prior to shearing and newly-woven cloth was washed to thicken it, where it gets its associated name Fuller’s Herb from the process called fulling. Soapwort was originally grown near woolen mills, so that it was on hand for washing wool. Unlike modern detergents which strip the lanolin from the fleece, washing with soapwort retains some natural lanolin on the wool, helping to make the wool more water repellent.
In 1904, Nathaniel Colgan in his 'Flora of the County Dublin' wrote that this plant 'has been established for upwards of a century along the Dodder valley' and he 'suggests that it was introduced for use in the bleachgreens and calico printing works then in operation along the river near Ball's Bridge'.
Soapwort would also have been used in the local public laundries. The common name ‘Bouncing Bet’ was an old fashioned name for a washer woman, but there doesn't seem to be any real truth to the story that if you see soapwort growing it indicates there was once a laundry or a fulling mill close by. Whilst it would have been encouraged to grow near these facilities, it would also grow and spread in any undisturbed place. In Ireland it can still be found growing in many old cottage gardens.
Plants have also been found near the sites of old Roman baths. The Romans also used it as an ointment to treat skin diseases. It was used in the Middle Ages to treat venereal disease and was also sniffed to induce sneezing, sneezing was believed to ease illness. A decoction of the plant can be applied externally to treat itchy skin, eczema, psoriasis, acne and boils. Gypsies would apply a decoction of root to a bruised or black eye to remove coloration.
Roots have been used to knock out fish to make them easy to catch – for this reason it may be a good idea not to grow Soapwort close to fish ponds, its creeping rhizomes excrete a poison in wet soil that is harmful to fish.
Soapwort is not recommended for internal use as saponins can be toxic. An overdose can cause nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting. Despite its toxic potential, soapwort finds culinary use as an emulsifier in the commercial preparation of halve (a sweet made using tahini and sugar or honey) and in brewing to create beer with a good head. In India, the rhizome is used as a galactagogue.
Back in 1999 a trial of 25 native plant species carried out at the University Botanic Garden in Cambridge ranked soapwort was the second most popular nectar source for butterfly species, with a very high nectar secretion rate and second only to purple loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria in the number of butterfly species that it attracted. Not only that - it's also virtually slug-proof.
Recently researchers in Poland have shown that slugs avoid eating soapwort. Soapwort's slug-deterrent properties are due to the saponin compounds in its rhizomes and leaves. Saponins are natural detergents, found in many plants including horse chestnut seed ('conkers').
A few years ago some Austrian research showed that slugs will not cross a barrier of ground-up conker seed meal and theoretically sprayed saponin extracts have the potential to protect seedlings that are susceptible to slug damage, but for the fact that saponins are very soluble and wash away in the rain.
- Additional Information
Packet Size 500mg Average Seed Count 300 Seeds Seed Form Natural Seeds per gram 600 seeds / gram Common Name Bouncing Bet, Fuller's Herb Other Common Names Mediterranean Pinks, Rose Soapwort Other Language Names IR: Garbhán creagach, FR: Saponaire Genus Saponaria Species officinalis Hardiness Hardy Perennial Flowers Starry bright-pink clusters Natural Flower Time Long blooming. Pink in June to August Foliage Oval, bright green leaves, semi-evergreen Height 10 to 20cm (4 to 8in) Spread 30 to 60cm (12 to 24in) Position Full sun. Soil Prefers well-drained loam, tolerates light-textured infertile soil Time to Sow Sow in spring or autumn. Germination 14 to 30 days at 15 to 20°C (59 to 68°F). Growing Period Sowing to Germination: 4 to 8 weeks. Germination to Transplant: 4 to 6 weeks