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Synonyms: Soaproot. Bouncing Bet. Latherwort. Fuller’s Herb. Bruisewort. Crow Soap. Sweet Betty. Wild Sweet William.
Common Names: common soapwort, bouncing-bet, crow soap, wild sweet William, and soapweed,
Habitat: Saponaria officinalis is native to Central and Southern Europe. Grows well in English gardens. It grows in cool places at low or moderate elevations under hedgerows and along the shoulders of roadways.
Saponaria officinalis is a stout herbaceous perennial plant with a stem growing in the writer’s garden to 4 or 5 feet high. Leaves lanceolate, slightly elliptical, acute, smooth, 2 or 3 inches long and 1/3 inch wide. Large pink flowers, often double in paniculate fascicles; calyx cylindrical, slightly downy; five petals, unguiculate; top of petals linear, ten stamens, two styles; capsule oblong, one-celled, flowering from July till September and the seeds ripen from Aug to September. The flowers are hermaphrodite (have both male and female organs) and are pollinated by Lepidoptera.It is noted for attracting wildlife. . No odour, with a bitter and slightly sweet taste, followed by a persistent pungency and a numbing sensation in the mouth.
Succeeds in any moderately fertile well-drained soil in sun or semi-shade. Prefers a neutral to alkaline soil. Hardy to about -20°c. A very ornamental plant, soapwort is often grown in the herb garden and is sometimes cultivated for the soap that can be obtained from the roots. There are some named forms, usually with double flowers, that have been selected for their ornamental value. Plants can be very invasive when grown in good conditions. Soapwort should not be grown next to a pond with amphibians or fish in it since if the plant trails into the water it can cause poisoning. The flowers are slightly scented with a sweet aroma that has an undertone of clove. Hybridizes with other members of this genus. A good moth plant.
Seed – best if given a short cold stratification. Sow autumn or late winter in a cold frame. The seed usually germinates within 4 weeks. Prick out the seedlings into individual pots when they are large enough to handle and plant them out in early summer. Division in spring or autumn. Very easy, it can be successfully done at any time in the growing season if the plants are kept moist until they are re-established. Larger divisions can be planted out direct into their permanent positions. We have found it best to pot up the smaller divisions and grow them on in a lightly shaded position in a cold frame, planting them out once they are well established in the summer.
Parts Used: Dried root and leaves.
Constituents: Constituents of the root, Saponin, also extractive, resin, gum, woody fibre, mucilage, etc.
Soapwort root dried in commerce is found in pieces 10 and 12 inches long, 1/12 inch thick, cylindrical, longitudinally wrinkled, outside light brown, inside whitish with a thick bark. Contains number of small white crystals and a pale yellow wood.
Soapwort’s main medicinal use is as an expectorant. Its strongly irritant action within the gut is thought to stimulate the cough reflex and increase the production of a more fluid mucus within the respiratory passages. The whole plant, but especially the root, is alterative, antiscrophulatic, cholagogue, depurative, diaphoretic, mildly diuretic, expectorant, purgative, sternutatory and tonic. A decoction of the whole plant can be applied externally to treat itchy skin. The plant has proved of use in the treatment of jaundice and other visceral obstructions. but is rarely used internally in modern herbalism due to its irritant effect on the digestive system. When taken in excess, it destroys red blood cells and causes paralysis of the vasomotor centre. See also the notes above on toxicity. The root is harvested in the spring and can be dried for later use. One of the saponins in this plant is proving of interest in the treatment of cancer, it is cytotoxic to the Walker Carcinoma in vitro. The German Commission E Monographs, a therapeutic guide to herbal medicine, approve Saponaria officinalis Soapwort. Bouncingbet for coughs/bronchitis.
Other Uses: Soap.
A soap can be obtained by boiling the whole plant (but especially the root) in water. It is a gentle effective cleaner, used especially on delicate fabrics that can be harmed by modern synthetic soaps (it has been used to clean the Bayeaux tapestry). It effects a lustre in the fabric. The best soap is obtained by infusing the plant in warm water. The roots can be dried and stored for later use. The plant is sometimes recommended as a hair shampoo, though it can cause eye irritations. The plant spreads vigorously and can be used as a ground cover when planted about 1 metre apart each way.
Known Hazards: The plant contains saponins. Although toxic, these substances are very poorly absorbed by the body and so tend to pass through without causing harm. They are also broken down by thorough cooking. Saponins are found in many plants, including several that are often used for food, such as certain beans. It is advisable not to eat large quantities of food that contain saponins. Saponins are much more toxic to some creatures, such as fish, and hunting tribes have traditionally put large quantities of them in streams, lakes etc in order to stupefy or kill the fish. Do not use for more than 2 weeks. Avoid during pregnancy.
The information presented herein is intended for educational purposes only. Individual results may vary, and before using any supplements, it is always advisable to consult with your own health care provider.