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. http://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Sapindus+marginatus
Upadhyay A. and D. K. Singhrev. 2012. Pharmacological Effects of Sapindus mukorossi. Inst. Med. Trop., 54 (5):273–280. doi: 10.1590/S0036-46652012000500007