Soapwort has been used for its cleansing properties since the time of the Ancient Greeks. It is still occasionally used for washing delicate antique fabrics and tapestries — and also for producing a head on beer!
Soapwort, saponaria officinalis, is an attractive perennial garden herb. The oval-shaped pale green leaves grow in pairs on the red-tinged branching stem. The clear pink flowers appear in July and August, growing in loose clusters, and when grouped closely together the plants make a lovely patch of colour. The creeping rootstock grows quickly through moist light soils and needs to be kept in check or it can become too invasive.
As its name implies, soapwort is a cleansing plant containing a soapy substance called saporina. When the plant is boiled in water it produces a lather like soapsuds or detergent. This can be used to wash delicate fabrics, such as silk, cashmere and woollen knitwear. If a pinch of dried orris root is added to the rinsing water the clothes will be fresh and fragrant as well as clean.
Soapwort grows best in damp places in sun or semi-shade and should be planted in spring or autumn. It can be grown from seed, but the results are poor. Once a soapwort plant is established it can readily be propagated by root division at any time during the growing season.
Soapwort is used in homeopathic medicine but it is not recommended for use in home-made medicine. At no time should it be eaten or swallowed. If eaten the pungent bitter-sweet taste is followed by numbness in the mouth. Soapwort is a cosmetic herb and it can be used for external application. The leaves and roots are dried for winter use, the leaves being picked before the flowers bloom and the root at any time during the season. The roots are thick and need careful drying. The leaves are dried and stored in the usual way.
Soapwort shampoo leaves all types of hair soft, shining and easy to manage. A decoction can be made using fresh or dried soapwort and distilled water, or still mineral water.
To make a decoction: Take 2 handfuls of soapwort and add I ½ cups distilled water. Bring the water slowly to the boil and then simmer gently for 5—10 minutes. Remove the decoction from the heat, cover and leave to cool. Strain carefully through muslin or cheesecloth. When it is cold, add a concentrated infusion (see page 15) of another herb such as nettle or southernwood for greater effect.
An infusion of soapwort makes a good cleansing lotion and is suitable for most types of skin, leaving it refreshed and softened.
* To make an infusion: Use a handful of chopped leaves and pour on a cupful of boiling water. Leave to infuse for 5 minutes then strain carefully into a stoppered jar. Label it and keep in a cool place. Use for cleansing both hands and face and make a fresh infusion every few days.