Soap is one of the many things we take for granted in our modern society. Most of us wouldn’t have a clue how to make soap if we couldn’t buy it at stores. Fortunately, in this case nature provides us with many ready-to-use soaps. There is never an excuse to stay dirty in the outdoors. Soaps are everywhere!
Today, we’ve gotten so civilized that we long to get back into nature, to fill our backpacks and go rough it for a weekend or longer. But we’re so civilized that we’ve totally forgotten that “soap” is abundant in nature. Most of these soap plants were used by Native Americans, and some are considered ornamentals. In fact, there are quite a few plants that contain saponins, though not in volumes that make them useful as soap.
Soap plants are quite a bit different from the “old fashioned” soap that grandma used to make on the farm—those hard bars of soap that we associate with the pioneer days. Most of those soaps were made from a combination of animal fats (pig, cow, etc.) and lye (processed from wood ashes in the old days). That’s not what I’m talking about here. For making homemade bars of lye soap, check out the accompanying recipe by Jill Easton.
These plants are found everywhere, and most can be prepared very simply. Let’s examine a few of the common wild soap plants.
There is a fairly widespread member of the lily family with the tennis-ball-sized bulb referred to as amole (Chlorogalum pomeridianum). The long, linear leaves measure a foot and longer, and they are wavy on their margins. When you dig down—sometimes up to a foot deep in hard soil—you’ll find the bulb, which is entirely covered in layers of brown fibers. I have seen useful brushes and whisk brooms made from a cluster of these fibers that had been gathered and securely wrapped on one end with some cordage.
For the soap, remove the brown fiber until you have the white bulb. It is formed in layers, just like an onion, and you’ll find it sticky and soapy to handle. Take a few layers of the white bulbs, add water and agitate between your hands. A rich lather results, which you can use to take a bath, wash your hair, wash your clothes or clean your dog.
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The bulbs can be dug year-round if you know where to dig. When the plant is dormant in late fall and winter, there is only scant evidence to tell you that the bulbs are underground. Though the bulbs can be dug and dried for future use, the fresh bulb is superior.
Bouncing Bet (Saponaria officnalis), also known as soapwort, is widely available. It is planted by gardeners for its pink flowers and occurs wild in some areas. It is an introduced plant with little history of use by Native Americans.
The leaves or the roots can be used, though I prefer to use the leaves simply because once you pull the root, the plant is gone. Bouncing Bet is made into soap by agitating the fresh leaves between your hands with water. The quality of lather varies, but it is worth knowing about should the plant grow abundantly in your area.
Buffalo Gourd (Cucurbita foetidissima) is widely spread throughout the Southwestern United States, and it can be found in remote deserts and in urban vacant lots. It also goes by such local names as coyote melon and calabazilla. This is an obvious relative of squash and pumpkins. The small, orange-shaped gourds have been used as rattles by Southwestern Native Americans, though it makes a somewhat inferior rattle. The wandering vine arises from a huge underground root, and the stiff leaves often stand upright. They have a unique aroma, and the leaves are covered with tiny, rigid spines.
To make soap, pinch off a handful of the tender growing tips, or just the older leaves if that’s all you can find. Add water and agitate between your hands. A green frothy lather results, which was used for washing clothes by Southwestern tribes. However, buffalo gourd is regarded by some as the soap of last resort since the tiny hairs may cause irritation to the skin.
Mountain lilac (Ceanothus species) is a shrub to a small tree that is fairly common throughout the west. Various species of Ceanothus are found throughout the U.S. When you are hiking through chaparral, desert or mountain regions in the spring, you will notice a spot of white or blue or purple on the hillside or along the trail. There are many species that you can use for soap, and they also go by the names of buckbrush, snowbrush and soapbloom. Since the botanical features of each species varies, the easiest way to determine if you have a mountain lilac is to take a handful of blossoms, add water and rub between your hands. You’ll get a good lather with a mild aroma if you have mountain lilac.
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By late spring to early summer, the flowers fall off and the tiny, sticky green fruits develop. These too can be rubbed between the hands with water to make a good soap. The fruits can also be dried and then reconstituted later when soap is needed. I tried making soap with fruits that I had dried five years earlier. The fruits were very hard, so I first ground them up in my mortar and pestle. Then I added water, rubbed vigorously and had soap. Not as good as from the fresh fruit, but soap nevertheless.
One of the more interesting wild soaps is found in a genus of mostly edible and medicinal plants. Soaproot (Chenopodium californicum) is related to the nutritious lamb’s quarter (C. album), the quinoa (C. quinoa), and epazote (C. ambrosiodes). In fact, you could cook the leaves of soaproot, drain and rinse them well, and serve as you would spinach. Most people looking at soaproot for the first time would think it was a type of lamb’s quarter plant, but if observant, they’d know that something was different.
For one thing, soaproot has a large taproot, with a shape similar to a carrot or a large ginseng root. In hard soil, the root can be a foot deep and you’ll need a good digging stick or a shovel to reach it.
To make soap, first grate the root with your knife or with a kitchen grater. Then add water and rub between the hands to get a top-quality, thick lather. It’s a remarkable experience to produce that frothy lather from this plant. In most cases, it seems superior to even store-bought soaps, and it cleans quite well.
Native peoples often dried and stored this root for later use. When dry, it seems like a rock or a piece of hard wood. Yet once grated and water added, you can still get a top-quality soap.
Unfortunately, soaproot seems to be found in scattered locations. It is possible that urban sprawl has destroyed much of this since it grows from its perennial root. I have never found large patches of soaproot, but only isolated patches. Therefore, you should only use small taproots and leave the rest. I also take the seeds in summer and scatter them widely so more plants will grow. If you don’t plan to take these precautions, I would suggest you leave this one alone entirely.
Yearning For Yucca
There are numerous species of yucca found widely, mostly throughout the Plains and western states. They resemble big pin cushions with their long, linear, needle-tipped leaves. In fact, yucca can truly be called the “grocery store” or the “hardware store” of the wild since this plant produces not only soap, but several good foods, tinder, top-quality fiber, sewing needles and carrying cases or quivers from the mature, hollowed-out flower stalks.
Though the use of the root has been widely popularized, I have found that one need only cut one leaf to make soap. The job of digging up one yucca plant is considerable, not to mention the possible legal ramifications, since some species are classified as endangered, and to kill off a yucca just to wash your hands hardly seems justifiable. The soap from the leaf is perhaps 10 to 20 percent inferior to the soap from the root, but you get this leaf soap at perhaps 5 percent of the labor needed to dig up a root. So leave the roots alone. When you need soap, carefully cut off one leaf.
Be very careful not to poke yourself with one of the sharp tips and not to slice your fingers on the very sharp edges of the leaf. To remove just one leaf, I have found that garden hand clippers work well, as do the scissors of my Swiss Army knife. Snip off the sharp tip so you don’t poke yourself. Then strip the leaf into fibers until you have a handful of very thin strands. Add water, agitate between your hands and you have a good quality soap.
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Typically, I show my students how to twine rope or weave cord from the yucca fibers. We make a length of about 2 feet and then, once everyone makes green soap, I tell them that they have nature’s very own “Irish soap-on-a-rope.” The rope is the soap, and one strand lasts about a weekend when you’re in the wild. Overall, yucca soap is the one I have used most often and in the most diverse of circumstances because the plant is widespread, easy to recognize and is generally available for picking year-round.
This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Winter 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.