Soapberry provides shade and cleaning solutions

Soapberry (Sapindus saponaria)

Sapindaceae Family (Soapberry Family)

Synonym: S. marginatus

This small, monecious (male and female flowers on same plant) genus is found in the North and South Americas and in the East, primarily in the Himalayas. While the “berry,” the outer covering of the seed, has been long used for its saponins, Moerman reports that the hard seeds were used as beads.

Habitat. Found in Florida, Georgia, and the Caribbean, particularly in hammocks and shell middens and other coastal scrubby areas.

Cultivation. Tolerant of various soils and pH including sandy, loamy, or clay but should be in a well-drained location. Sapindus prefers full sun and dry or moist soil and can tolerate drought but is sensitive to frost.

The seeds should be soaked for 24 hours in warm water and sown in a cold frame in mid-winter. They may not germinate until late spring. Plant in early summer.

Identification. The small tree produce leaves in mid spring and flowers from about May through June. The fruit begins to ripen in mid-autumn. Leaves: alternate, compound with winged rachis (main axis of leaf); 6–8 leaflets are opposite, margins entire. Flowers: Tiny, yellowish-white on branched clusters at tips of branches—early summer into autumn. Fruit: Round, leathery, tan–brownish; drupe like.

Parts used. Leathery berries, seed removed.

Harvest tips. While the tree is young, it is easy to pick off the fruit in the autumn and winter. However, as the tree grows, it becomes necessary to shake the tree to dislodge the uppermost fruit. Or keep the tree pruned to keep the berries within reach! The pitted berries can be dried in the sun and stored for years (with the usual caveats for such in Florida).

How to prepare “soap.” Put 15–20 berries in a pot with about 6 cups of water. Heat to boiling and turn down to a simmer for 10–20 minutes or infuse overnight. Mash berries to get out as much of the saponins as possible. Strain and reserve liquid. This can stand at “room temperature” for about a week, but will keep for weeks in refrigerator. Alternately, freeze in ice cube trays for later use.

Household uses. The most common use is for laundry; however, the soap can also be used to clean counters and floors or wash hands or hair. For laundry use about ¼ cup per load (or 2 frozen cubes).

You can also put about 5 of the pitted berries in a fine mesh bag and use in the washing machine. (You may wish to add a few drops of an essential oil and for whites, an eco-friendly non bleach whitener.) The saponins release best in warm water. Berries will stand up to 3–5 loads of laundry.

Personal uses. Pour about 1 cup of liquid into squeeze bottle and pour over your hair and massage through hair and on scalp. Wrap hair in a towel and leave in for about 10 minutes. (Note that soap nuts can be drying for hair, so use a conditioner or oil on your hair.)

Medicinal uses. Austin lists various supposed medicinal uses with references, but does not offer any information about preparation or dose. The indications include rheumatism, gout, tumors, and snakebite. Soap berries can also be used as an insect repellant or as a mild insecticide on plants.

Sapindus mukorossi (species found in Asia) has traditional medical uses, such as expectoration, removal of lice, excessive salivation, pimples, epilepsy, chlorosis, migraines, eczema, and psoriasis. Even the seeds, which are poisonous, have been used for various medical and dental conditions. (Please do not ingest S. saponaria or S. mukorossi without supervision of a health professional.)

Actions and character. Antifungal, antibacterial.

Constituents: Saponins, 37%

Cautions: Seeds are poisonous. The berry is considered toxic for internal use by some authorities. Soapberry liquid can burn your eyes.



Austin, D. 2004. Florida Ethnobotany. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Moerman, D. E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland OR: Timber Press Inc.

Nelson, Gil. 2011. The Trees of Florida. Sarasota: Pineapple Press Inc.

Plants for a Future. Accessed online January 2015.

Upadhyay A. and D. K. Singhrev. 2012. Pharmacological Effects of Sapindus mukorossi. Inst. Med. Trop., 54 (5):273–280. doi: 10.1590/S0036-46652012000500007

Florida Blackberries

Cultivated blueberries in Florida are receiving their annual abundance of attention. This delicious summer fruit overshadows, often literally, the scrumptious native blackberries that ripen slightly before most of the blueberry crop. It’s not unusual to find blackberries growing amongst the cultivated blueberry bushes, unless fastidious growers have culled them out to protect their customers and employees from being scratched by thorns.

Sadly this year, however, the native blackberries were stunted by the spring drought. Plant failed to thrive and although many made a valiant display of flowers, the fruit succumbed to the dry conditions and withered. Have heart, though, this hearty perennial will wait out the summer, redouble its efforts, and strive for fruit next spring.

The Rubus species of the Rosaceae family are abundant and have a long history as both a food source and a medicinal. Euell Gibbons tells us that fine distinctions between blackberries and dewberries are best left to botanists, and for the rest of us, who are mainly interested in enjoying this plants bounty, it suffices to know that blackberries tend to grow upright and dewberries are trailing vines. I concur. I’m less interested in knowing which is which and more interested in popping the ripe fruit into my mouth.

Native species native include the common R. cuneifolius (sand blackberry), R. argutus (sawtooth blackberry), R. trivialis (southern dewberry), and the less common R. flagellaris (northern dewberry). R. niveus, an escaped cultivar native to Asia, is sometimes found in Miami and Dade County (Wunderlin and Hansen).

Sand Blackberry (Rubus spp.)
Sand Blackberry (Rubus spp.)
Wild blackberries and dewberries can be used interchangeably, although the blackberries are usually plumper and sweeter. They are easy to identify but less so to gather because of the thorns. Wear long sleeves and old clothes as a morning of blackberry gathering will result in scratched arms and torn garments. Look for blackberries along sunny creek banks and streams, on disturbed sites, open fields, and in your own Florida garden! It took several years of fighting with these well-armed “weeds” for me to realize that I might as well let them have some space along the inside garden fence where they get plenty of water and protect the rest of the garden from the irascible bunnies that munch eat our vegetable seedlings and lettuces. Blackberries are hardy and resilient and truly can be found in just about any Florida habitat from deep shade to sunny prairies and fields, and from moist ditches to dry sandhills.

Rubus species are thorny, thicket forming perennials with compound leaves of three to five teardrop to oval-shaped leaflets with toothed margins. The white, five-petaled flowers appear in early to mid-spring and are borne in clusters on terminal branches.

Your choices of how to use these native berries are limited only by your imagination. Juices, jams, pies and cobblers, cordials, and wine are traditional uses for the Rubus berries. You can also add them to lemonade, throw a handful over some vanilla ice cream, toss them into summer salads, or turn them into a marinade or chutney for meat dishes.

Fruit and flower petals are edible with the exception of Rubus occidentalis, which is not native to Florida. The leaves of native Rubus can be used as a pleasant astringent tea and also has medicinal properties. More about that later.

The young shoots of blackberries can be de-thorned, peeled, and then eaten as a novelty or survival food as the preparation is not worth adding this food regularly to one’s diet. And in this case, be sure you know exactly what you are foraging because you are collecting an edible before you can positively identify it.

Nutritionally, blackberry fruit is high in bioflavonoids, antioxidants, fiber, folic acid, and omega-3 fatty acids (seeds). Leaves contain magnesium; calcium; potassium; phosphorus; and vitamins A, B1, and C. The leaves and roots are also high in citric acid, oxalic acid, glucosides, and resins.

Medicinally Rubus species have long been used as astringents, particularly for ailments affecting digestion and elimination. The high level of tannins make blackberry leaf tea an excellent and nearly instantaneous remedy for diarrhea, and a good cure for other damp conditions such as bleeding, postnasal drip, mouth sores. While Rubus leaves have traditionally been used for “women’s complaints,” it wasn’t until the 1940s that researchers discovered an alkaloid in the plant called “framamine” that strengthens and tones the pelvis and uterus.

Native American people used a decoction of the root bark to treat diarrhea and dysentery, while Europeans favored the leaves of their native R. fruticosus for these purposes. Blackberry leaves are cooling, and the root bark is more astringent than the leaves. (Note that overconsumption of blackberry root or leaf tea may cause constipation due to its high tannin levels.)

There are so many wonderful uses for the blackberry from foods and beverages to teas, vinegars, mouthwashes, and skin tonics that perhaps next time you inadvertently get tangled in its briars, you’ll be less frustrated and more appreciative of this native plant’s gifts.


Wunderlin, R. P., and B. F. Hansen. 2003. Guide to the Vascular Plants of Florida. 2nd edition. Gainesville FL: University Press of Florida.

Botanical Books of Interest to Herbalists

A couple of interesting books have come my way, and so I am sharing some thoughts.

The Plant Lover's Companion
The Plant Lover's Companion
First, The Plant Lovers Companion: Plants, People, & Places by Julia Brittain  (David & Charles, 2006; $14.99). (Note that this book seems to have been published under two slightly different titles: actually the title and subtitle reversed.) Regardless, this compact encyclopedia has almost everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the history of plants and the people who have studied and collected them from Bartram and Linnaeus to Nuttall, Culpepper, and Monardres. Countries have entries as do organizations and botanical gardens such as the Royal Horticultural Society, Kew Gardens, Nymans, the Aboretum Kalmthout in Belgium, and Boskoop in The Netherlands.  (The U.S. is lumped together with North America.) There is a decidedly British slant on the contents, and botanical gardens in the U.S. (and other countries) are rarely mentioned. Perhaps the author feels we do not actually have any of note. Or perhaps this mini-pedia is a compilation of her favorite places, people, and plants in her native and not meant to be comprehensive at all.

But considering that most of the great botanical discoveries were made by our ancestors who traveled from Europe with the wave of settlers and returned to their native countries with curiosities from the New World, the focus of this book of factoids is appropriate and meaningful, albeit less than international. However, the great purveyor of cider whom we can thank for the spread of apple seeds throughout the New World is sadly missing.

Plants that are named for special areas, regions, or people are also listed, although do not expect any consuming amount of information; the majority of entries in the small book are a few sentences, although some entries such as countries, famous botanists and gardens, and well-known gardens are provided more generous space.

Look for a companion volume called Plant Names Explained: Botanical Terms and Their Meaning.

Lives of Trees
Lives of Trees
Also on my reading list this summer is a sweet little volume called Lives of the Trees: An Uncommon History (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010; $19.95) by Diana Wells. The author is an historian and not a botanist, which makes clear right up front.

The stories, delicately illustrated  in black and white by Heather Lovett, are delightful little praises to a hundred of the author’s favorite trees. Kudos to the book designer for a simple and elegant layout that draws you into each tree as you page through the book. They are in alphabetical order and you can start at Acaia and proceed to Yew, or you can use the index or table of contents to select your favorite tree by common or botanical name.

The lore of trees is fascinating and clearly Wells enjoyed her research which is full of interesting botanical tidbits. Linnaeus, for example, named the Cinchona (from whence we originally obtained quinine) for the Countess of Chinchon, the wife of the Spanish Viceroy to Lima, who was said to be have been cured of malaria by taking the powdered bark of this tree.

A Botanist Tackles Spurge Nettle for Lunch

The latest issue of Palmetto, the quarterly journal of the Florida Native Plant Society, has an amusing and informative article by Francis Putz, Ph.D., about Cnidoscolus stimulosus, a much-despised plant for Floridians hiking about in sandals. Every part of this plant has protective needles save the well-hidden root, which can be as deep as three or four feet. And the sting lasts for hours.

Note: Rubbing a bit of plantain (Plantago spp.) on the irritation often relieves the burning itch. Luckily, plantain is usually abundant at the same time of year as Cnidoscolus.

Several years ago, when we invited southeastern herbalist Doug Elliott to present a day-long foraging seminar here in north Florida, he was so excited by the abundant C. stimulosus (also called spurge nettle and tread softly) that he insisted we dig some up for lunch. Well dig we did. He kept promising we soon find the root. Paul went to find a sturdier shovel. After what seemed like an hour, we uncovered an ugly, jointed tuber. That, Doug told us pointing at the monstrosity, could be lunch!

Cnidoscolus stimulosus
Spurge Nettle

We tried it under his instructions: Boil until very soft–two or three times changing the water each time. Mash through a sieve and serve with butter. Actually it was quite tasty. But the effort to obtain it? My husband and I agreed: definitely a survival food!

Dr. Putz and his son Antonio came to a similar conclusion in their experiments to prepare the prickly leaves as a pot herb, although he writes favorably about C. acontifolius and C. chayamansa, related species that he sampled in Costa Rica.

Read “Trying to Eat Tread Softlies” in the current issue of Palmetto, which is available to members of the Florida Native Plant Society, and also more than likely in your public library.