Once Soapwort is established, it grows for years

August 14, 2019

Many surnames started as simply our ancestors' occupations, so someone who worked with candles was a Chandler, from the French word “chandelier.” Someone who crafted wooden barrels was a Cooper, but his co-worker who made the metal hoops to bind the barrels was, and is now, a Hooper.

The woman vigorously scrubbing clothes was affectionately called “Bouncing Bet,” with Bet a nickname for Elizabeth, a common name among washerwomen.

Bouncing Bet is the nickname or common name for an extremely fragrant light-pink flower that bounces in the breeze atop two-foot stems, and like Bouncing Bet the washerwoman, this Bouncing Bet is full of suds, which is why it is more commonly known as Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis). This herb contains large amounts of saponin, a natural chemical that foams and makes suds when mixed with water.

Soapwort has been added to beer to make a foamier head. Even though Soapwort is used externally, the root is poisonous if eaten.

The flowers attract beneficial pollinators such as hummingbirds, bees, butterflies and hummingbird moths. To encourage continuous blooming, cut back or deadhead the flowers as they fade.

There is another variety of Soapwort, Rock Soapwort or Creeping Soapwort (Saporina ocymoides), which only grows a few inches high and can be used as a good ground cover or cascading over a rock wall.

Sow Soapwort seeds after all danger of frost is past in the spring. The trick is to barely cover the seeds with fine soil. Instead of planting in rows, you can broadcast the seeds over finely tilled soil and gently rake them into the soil. Water softly immediately after sowing. Soapwort is hardy to USDA Zone 3. Once your soapwort plants become established, they will grow well and carefree for several years.

During drought or high temperatures, water the plants once or twice a week. You can apply a slow-release organic balanced liquid fertilizer in the spring when plants are vigorously growing, but all in all, they do well even in poor soil, as long as it is well drained and in full sun.

Because soapwort spreads from underground rhizomes, it will form nice, dense colonies over time. This spreading root system also means soapwort can become invasive. Though it’s native to eastern Europe, Soapwort has escaped and is often found growing wild along roadsides and streambanks.

To wash with soapwort, cut up the roots and steep them in hot water, then skim off the substance that collects on the water’s surface. This is the vegetable soap that will lather up when agitated in water. This gentle soap is used by curators and restoration artists to wash antique fabrics.

In addition to using soapwort roots for laundry, the Cherokee used soapwort medicinally as poultices and rinses to treat skin ailments and relieve pain. American Shakers used the rinse to treat poison ivy.

Plant some soapwort close to bedroom windows or pathways so the heady fragrance can be enjoyed all summer. Get creative and soak the roots in hot water and have a relaxing vegetable soap bath. Bring in bouquets of soapwort to liven up the TV room as you watch – what else? Soap operas!


  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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