Does anyone have an Anishinaabemowin name for soapwort? Soapwort, called “bouncing bet” in Haliburton Flora, is a medicinal and nominally edible plant that has been heavily used as you might imagine – to wash things. And sometimes still is.

I’ve noticed soapwort growing in damp places, along streams, and going off meager experience I’d say where settlers and water would congregate 100+ years ago. It was brought here by the aforementioned, who used it to wash everything.

“Sapo” means soap and saponins are natural cleaning agents, the same found in (the more popular?) soapnuts you might find at your local health conscious store. Most of soapworts folk names are lather related, including the unfamiliar (to me) “fuller’s-herb”. Textile workers cleaned newly thickened cloth with it in a process called fulling.

Soapwort - Saponaria Officinalis
Soapwort – Saponaria Officinalis

Edible Uses of Soapwort

The saponins that make this plant lather are somewhat toxic, so it’s not truly edible. However, the extract is used as an emulsifier in traditional tahini halvah recipes, and Pennsylvania Dutch beer brewers used it to create a foam head.

Medicinal Uses of Soapwort

Soapwort is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Integumentary
  • Respiratory

Medicinal tags include Diuretic, Expectorant, and Laxative. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes as a skin wash; say you’re in the bush and get poison ivy on you. Crushed leaves and roots mixed with water may cleanse the area enough to prevent or diminish a rash.

Its use as an expectorant is possibly outdated, or to the least requires professional supervision. The saponins are toxic, they will increase mucous and cause you to cough. They’ll also irritate the digestive tract, possibly causing vomiting or diarrhea. On top of that, long term internal use can cause serious damage.

Alternative Uses of Bouncing Bet

While not an equivalently effective substitute for modern soap, you can always make soap from the leaves and/or roots boiled in water. Its soap use is why in Haliburton Flora it’s called “bouncing bet”. Barmaids called “bets” used to clean bottles with a sprig of this plant in water. Shaking the bottles, hence their bouncing.

For a few years I used saponins to wash my laundry, and overtime there was a build-up – a common complaint if you take the issue to Google. Believe me, I had wanted to say this “all natural” route worked just as well. Some say it works for them.

Soapwort - Saponaria Officinalis
Soapwort – Saponaria Officinalis

Growing Latherwort

It’s invasive here in Ontario, Canada, so it’s recommended to grow in a pot if you wish to. While it’d grow fine from seed, this is of course one you could collect from the wild completely guiltlessly (and maybe sow some milkweed, buttercup, or another native plant in its place!)

Warnings

Dangerous if taken in strong doses or over a long periods of time.

Don’t get this soap in your eyes.

For people with sensitive skin it may cause a rash.

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored. Herbalists do not have an official certification yet, but that may be in the works.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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REFERENCES

wiki/Saponaria_officinalis

The Herb Book: The Most Complete Catalog of Herbs Ever Published (Dover Cookbooks)

The Green Pharmacy: The Ultimate Compendium Of Natural Remedies From The World’s Foremost Authority On Healing Herbs

The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal: A Safe and Practical Guide to Making and Using Herbal Remedies

Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs

Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

Reader’s Digest Magic and Medicine of Plants

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