SOAPWORT (Saponaria officinalis)
I chose to report on soapwort for Herb of the Month because it blooms
pink in the spring and is low to the ground, like a ground cover. The
scientific name of the soapwort plants in the dye garden at Meadowbrook
Herb Garden is Saponaria ocymoides. I noticed a picture of
it in the fall 2004 van Bourgondien catalog on page 40, and the description
reads, "Cote d'Azur Pinks (Saponaria ocymoides). One of the most
beautiful and useful perennials from the Cote d'Azur region of France.
Excellent as a groundcover or rockgarden plant with semi-evergreen foliage
covered with pink star-shaped flowers. It is compact with a spreading
habit which is ideal for banks or terraces….Zones 3-8."
We have another species, Saponaria officinalis, which has
the common names of soapwort, latherwort, Bouncing Bet, bruisewort,
sheepwort and Wild Sweet William. This species is along the west inner
border at the Herb Garden, near the tansy and senna (which is in the
southwest inner corner). This plant is thought to be native to Europe
and western Asia, from where it was introduced into central and eastern
Asia and North America. In the Middle Ages, soapwort was called Herba
fullonis because it was used to "full" or clean and thicken
woolen fabric. This species grows from twelve to thirty-six inches high
and it blooms in a variety of pink, white or flesh-colored fragrant
flowers from July to September. The plant may also be found growing
along streams and roadsides if it escapes from gardens. It can become
Soapwort has been used for centuries for cleaning. The roots have a
high saponin content (which creates foam in water) and were used to
make a decoction to wash clothes and the body. It also can be used in
shampoos and skin lotions and to clean pictures and furniture.
Soapwort, if taken internally in large doses, can cause muscle paralysis.
It should be taken only under the guidance of a medical practitioner.
Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs indicates it is
toxic to humans and animals and ought not to be taken internally. Soapwort
was a medicinal herb used by medieval Arabs and the early Chinese and
To make a decoction to use as a shampoo, skin lotion, or to launder
delicate fabrics, boil pieces of root in water for four or five minutes,
cool, and strain. The roots can be dug in autumn and used fresh or dried
Another source indicated that a decoction made from leaves covered
and boiled in water restores old fibers and vegetable dyes to their
former strength. The green decoction is rinsed out of the fabrics. Soapwort
has been used to restore valuable tapestries and brocades.
Yet another source said to gather, wash, and pound the roots when the
plant is in bloom or to crush fresh leaves. Mix the roots or leaves
with water to form suds. This safely cleans silk and will restore its
sheen, which washing in soap will not do.
Soapwort can be easily grown in the garden from seed, cuttings, or by
root division. There are double-flowered varieties, such as S. officinalis
'Florepleno', S. o. 'Caucasica' and S.o. 'Plena.'
Blossom colors can range from white to purple. To prevent soapwort from
self-sowing all over the garden, plants can be cut back after the flowers