Soapwort – Saponaire officinale
With the mild weather and some rain, a lot of wild flowers are making their appearance. Soapwort is one of them and very easy to recognise. Native to Europe and Asia, a perennial 30 – 40 cm tall, with fragrant flowers, showy with colours ranging from pink to white. The flowers, 40 mm in diameter, have 5 petals and grow in clusters. The leaves are opposite, oval to lanceolate, mid-green in colour, 40-70 mm in diameter, larger at the foot of the plant than at the top. Soapwort likes damp, but well-drained soil. The name Saponaria comes from the Latin word ‘saponis’ meaning soap and ‘aria’ referring to the sap in the plant. The plant could not have a more suitable name as it has been widely used as a soap substitute till the commercial production of soap in the 1800’s. It is still used in the Middle East and in museums to clean old and delicate tapestries.
It was once used internally to treat skin diseases (psoriasis, eczema and acne) and was a last resort medicine to treat venereal disease when mercury, which was the traditional way of treating the disease, failed. It contains saponins, these saponins mixed with water form a soapy froth. It was also used to treat bronchial congestion, saponins loosen mucus. Nowadays it is rarely used internally as it has an irritating effect on the digestive system. Externally it can be used to treat skin diseases. It is not advisable to use it as a shampoo as it can cause severe eye irritation.
The whole plant, including the roots, contain saponins.
Bibliography: Fleurs de mediterranee – Larousse; The RHS encyclopedia of herbs and their uses – Deni Bown; Saponaria officinalis – Wikipedia; The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism – Malcolm Stuart