Years ago, I purchased a soapwort plant from a plant sale. When it bloomed the following year, I was pleasantly surprised with its bell shaped pink flowers and powdery smell. It grows to about 2 to 3 feet tall. I never thought much about this plant until one day I researched it to find out that it was brought over by the colonists to wash their clothes.
When I visited Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia, soapwort was one of the plants he used on his plantation. So, I decided to check how this little plant worked.
Before we get to how you can make your own soap, I found its history very interesting. It is known as Bouncing Bet, Soaproot, Bruisewort as well as a host of other names. My favorite nickname for soapwort is Bouncing Bet. A bet or betsy was a barmaid in England. According to Mother Earth News, a bet used the soapwort the leafy stems to clean the beer glasses. The bouncing part of the name is unknown.
However, Jo Ann Gardner, in The Heirloom Garden (1992) surmised that it got the bouncing part of the name due to how it moves around via its creeping roots. So, it bounces around.
Other civilizations have used soapwort in different ways.
It was used as a water softener in the Roman Empire and the colonists used it as a soap substitute.
The Syrians used it to wash wool while the Swiss used it to bathe sheep before shearing.
Besides its cleaning properties, soapwort was used to treat rheumatism, acne, cold sores, and boils.
It is native to Asia but has naturalized in Europe and North America.
Soapwort likes to grow near streams or other moist areas in part-shade. My soapwort is in part shade.
It spreads via its rhizomes. And oh is it a spreader. Make sure you have ample room for this plant or during the season pull the roots to keep it in check.
How Does it Work?
The leaves and roots are rich in saponins. I simply put the dried leaves in a pot and boiled it. (If you have fresh, use them instead.) Then strain the leaves and put the soapy water in a jar for use. (I will list some recipes in an upcoming article.)
Use it right away or put it in the refrigerator since there isn’t any preservative to prevent the water from breeding bacteria. (The Nerdy Farmer’s wife wrote an excellent piece on how DIY water based products can breed bacteria.) Alternatively, add vinegar to the mixture to make laundry detergent.
Some people use the root. I just don’t like digging up my plants but feel free to take the roots. Take every third one. Remember it is a spreader.
In the video below, you can see the lather that it makes when I shake it. Unfortunately, when the flowers are dry, they no longer emit a smell.
Uses for Soapwort:
You can use soapwort as follows:
- Wash delicate clothing such as wool.
- Alternatively, you can use the gentle soap to help with acne, other facial issues and skin rashes including poison ivy.
- Use as a shampoo.
- Medicinally, it can be used as an herbal preparation for cough remedies. However, it can be irritating if ingested.
How to Grow Soapwort
Guess what? You can grow your own soapwort too!
There are two different soapworts: rock soapwort (saponaria ocymoides) and soapwort offinialis. The first one is a ground cover which blooms in the spring. I grew it from seed several times thinking it was the same plant as the tall one that I had bought.
The groundcover soapwort has a pink flat flower; whereas the errect soapwort has a pink tubular flower. The erect soapwort grows to about 2 feet tall. Both spread.
I have never used the ground cover for soap. But if you are looking for a beautiful ground cover or a ground cover that hangs over a wall, consider growing it. It gets to about 2 feet wide. You will have to deadhead it for continuous blooming.
Rock soapwort prefers poor, sandy or rocky soil. However, it doesn’t like its feet wet so it must have well drained soil. Mine sits in clay soil that has been amended with compost and grows in full sun.
You can buy seeds listed below:
- Strictly Medicinal Seeds. I buy most of my herb seeds from them. (soapwort officinalis)
- Rare Seeds (Baker’s Creek)–rock soapwort. I have bought many seeds from Baker’s Creek.
- Seedaholic–soapwort officinalis (UK) I have never bought from them.
- High Country Gardens–rock soapwort. I have never bought from them.
As I mentioned above, I have only grown rock soapwort by seed. The first year, it is a wispy single stem plant. Mark it so you don’t accidentally pull it. Then the next year, it just gets much bigger. I think it gathers its strength during the winter.
The taller soapwort may need supports since it tends to lean when it flowers. It is a great plant for a mid-background placement in a bed. If you deadhead the spent flowers, it will continue to bloom the entire season.
Never plant soapwort near a fish pond due to its saponin content.
Want to Buy Some?
If you want to try some soapwort, I got your back. I harvested and dried it. You can buy it HERE at my shop.
Join the Conversation:
Do you grow soapwort or use it?