Natural Remedies: Growing Soap Plants

The Natural Remedies column shares information on growing soap plants with little processing, including: amole, buffalo gourd, soaproot and yucca.

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    Christopher Nyerges inspects buffalo gourd.
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    Soaproof and leaf.
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    Chart of natural soap plants available to grow in the garden.

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The Natural Remedies column shares information on growing soap plants and how to find nature's most common soaps. (See the chart of natural soap plants in the image gallery.)

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). Though making soap is a valuable skill, it's not what we're talking about here. We're speaking here of growing soap plants, plants that are useful as a soap immediately, generally with very little processing.

Throughout most of the United States, one can find many soap plants occurring naturally in the wild. Most of these, not surprisingly, were used by some of the greatest medicinal plant utilizers in history, the Native Americans. In fact, there are dozens of plants that contain saponins, though not in volumes that make the plants especially useful as soap. Here is a list of our favorites.

Amole Soap Plant

Amole (Chlorogalum pomeridianum) is a fairly widespread member of the lily family with a tennis ball-sized bulb. The long, linear leaves measure a foot or 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 have been gathered and securely wrapped on one end with some cordage.

For the soap, you 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. I have heard that some Indians ate these bulbs when roasted, but I always found that it was too much like eating soap! Perhaps I baked it wrong.

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, or wash your clothes.

4/15/2007 7:46:02 PM

Hey all, Is there a way to preserve yucca soap in bar form? It would be a lot more convenient to make a lot and not have to go hunting for it on a daily basis. thanks, Fritz

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