Friday, June 24, 2011

The Soap Plant, Mother Nature's Bodega

Soap Plant Flowers
Among the many native flora populating our yard and the neighboring open space parks, one caught our eye soon after we moved here, with its broad floppy leaves that grow in bunches and thick bulb with a mass of fine fibrous roots. There are a dozen of these 'soap plants' or 'soap lilies' (Chlorogalum pomeridianum) in our yard, and we even transplanted one into our flower garden. They are indigenous to the Bay Area and apparently have a variety of uses, according to the many citations on the internet. Native Americans in the region--probably the Miwok and other tribes--used them for soap, thus their common name, but also for food and so many other uses, it seems they are an entire general store in one species.

Soap Plant Leaves
One thing I don't understand is how something that works well as soap, could also be edible.  These two properties seem diametrically opposite.  Most good cleaning products are very poisonous and taste awful.  And conversely, I can't think of a single food that doesn't just make things dirty in the preparation and eating of it. Anybody who has washed dishes, or has kids knows this very well.

Soap plant root fibers.  These look like they would make a good brush
The other uses attributed to this plant on 'Wayne's Word Online Textbook of Natural History' are so numerous as to be questionable: brushes for sweeping flour, poultices for sores, cure for rheumatic cramps, glue for arrow feathers, goo for waterproofing baskets, ink for tattoos, and a poison used to kill fish so they can be scooped up for food.  He does list references, so someone could followup and see if these are all true or just someone's imaginings. Or, better yet, we could harvest a few of these plants and test out these uses.  Maybe I will see if it makes a good soap the next time I take a shower.

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