Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Maybe you’re looking for an environmentally-friendly and economical alternative to store-bought soap. Or perhaps you want to know how to maintain hygiene while camping or in a survival situation. Either way, you can benefit from learning about the many plants you can use as soap.
Using plants for cleansing is nothing new. Historians have found evidence that the ancient Egyptians bathed with soaps made from plants along with animal and vegetable oils. Native Americans also used a variety of plants as soap when they washed.
And the good news is that it is surprisingly easy to create soap with plants. The secret is a naturally-occurring compound called saponin in many plants, especially those with waxy cuticles.
When you chop up plants that contain saponin and rub the pieces in your hands with water, you can create a lather. This article will share some of the most common plants in the U.S. that contain saponin and how to use them as a soap substitute.
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1. Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis)
This perennial is native to Europe, but it has become naturalized in many parts of North America, especially zones 3 to 8. It blooms with five-petaled pink or white flowers from July to September.
You can use the leaves, flowers, and roots of the soapwort plant as soap. You can make the green lather by rubbing the plant’s leaves and roots in your hands along with a bit of water. Or you can boil the plant parts in water, strain out the debris, allow the liquid to cool, and use the soapy solution for washing.
Here’s a short video that gives more information on soapwort.
2. Buffaloberry (Shepherdia rotundifolia and Shepherdia canadensis)
Also called soapberry, the buffaloberry plant has high levels of saponin. Native Americans also used this plant for medicinal purposes and to make tea.
You can create a mild, natural soap by boiling the stems and berries in water or by rubbing them in your hands with a small amount of water to prepare a mild, soapy solution. You can learn more in this video.
3. Soapweed Yucca (Yucca glauca)
There are dozens of species of yucca plants in the U.S., primarily in the Plains and the West. Although you can make a thicker soap from the root of the yucca plant, all you really need is to cut off one leaf at a time.
Be wary of the leaf’s sharp edges and snip off the leaf’s pointy tip as your first step. Next, strip the leaf into thin strands. Now, rub the fibers between your hands with a small amount of water to create the soap. Here’s more on using the yucca as soap.
4. Soaproot Plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum)
Also called wavyleaf soap plant, amole, or soap root, this plant is typically found in California and Oregon. It has long, wavy-edged leaves and star-shaped flowers on a long stalk. However, the flowers only bloom once a year and only at night.
After you dig up the bulb, you need to remove the brown fibers encasing it. What’s left will look a bit like a white onion.
Peel off a few layers of the white bulb and rub them in your hands with a little water to create a rich lather. Watch this video to learn more about the soap plant. This video also has good information on how to use this plant as soap.
5. Clematis (Clematis)
Yes, this climbing plant that is popular with home flower gardeners is also on our list. Both the foliage and flowers of the clematis have a high concentration of saponins, making them useful for soap.
All you need to do is crush and boil the leaves or flowers to make a soapy solution. Or you can rub them together in your hands along with some water.
6. Ceanothus (Ceanothus Americanus)
An evergreen shrub that flowers in the spring, the ceanothus (also called soap bush and mountain lilac) is also great for soapmaking.
In this video, you’ll see how easy it is to create a lather by rubbing the leaves and flowers in your hands along with some water.
7. Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)
A member of the soapberry family, the horse chestnut tree produces shiny brown seeds that are high in saponins. The tree, which also bears showy pink or red flower clusters, thrives in zones 3 to 8.
To make soap, remove the green husk of the seed and soak it overnight to soften it. Then, chop or crush the seed with a spoon. Strain out the debris to create a soapy solution.
As with the other plants, you can also create a quick lather by rubbing the exposed seed in your hands with water. For more information on horse chestnut soap, watch this video.
8. Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum)
Bracken (also known as eagle fern) is a fern that grows in the forests and woodland areas of zones 3 to 10. Its underground rhizomes, which feature black root hairs, are rich in saponin.
To make soap, dig up part of the rhizome and cut it into small pieces. Boil the pieces in water to create a sudsy solution. Ten, strain, and cool the suds before using as a natural soap.
9. Baby’s Breath (Gypsophila)
A familiar site in floral arrangements, baby’s breath is a bush plant that blooms with delicate white flowers in the summer. Hardy in zones 3 to 9, baby’s breath has roots than can be used to make a soapy solution.
All you need to do is boil the roots in water. Stir the water until the foam forms. Then strain out the plant debris, cool, and use the resulting substance as soap.
10. Wild Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii)
A flowering deciduous shrub that grows primarily in the West and Southwest, wild mock orange leaves, flowers, and bark all contain saponin. Wild mock orange is hardy in zones 3 to 9.
An easy way to make soap with this plant is to harvest parts of the plant and place them in a jar of water. Cover the jar and shake until foam forms. Strain out the plant debris and use the mixture as a soap. A bonus is that the soap will have a pleasant citrusy fragrance.
11. Buffalo Gourd (Cucurbita foetidissima)
As you might expect from its name, this plant is related to pumpkins and squashes. It is also sometimes called coyote melon or calabazilla in the Southwestern United States.
The plant has leaves that are covered with small spines and vines that produce small gourds. To make soap, pinch off the leaves, taking care to avoid the sharp, tiny hairs.
Rub the leaves in your hands along with some water to create a green foamy lather. The younger the leaves, the better the quality of the soap. To learn more about the buffalo gourd, watch this video.
When you’re in a survival situation, you first must focus on water, food, and shelter. However, once those needs are met, hygiene also becomes essential. Keeping clean is our best defense against disease. Therefore, knowing which plants can help you clean dirt and germs off your skin and hair can be valuable information.
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