From Antivist

Many plants contain substances called saponins - these are toxic glycosides and can be found, usually in low concentrations, in many of our foods, especially in beans and some leaves. Fortunately saponins are destroyed by prolonged heat and are also very poorly absorbed by the body, so most of what we ingest passes straight through us. These saponins, however, are not without their uses and one of their properties is to form a lather in water that is a gentle but effective cleaner. A number of plants contain quite high concentrations of saponins and have been used as an alternative soap.



Amole (Chlorogalum pomeridianum) is a fairly widespread member of the lily family with a tennis ball-sized bulb. The long, linear leaves measure a foot or longer, and they are wavy on their margins. When you dig down�sometimes up to a foot deep in hard soil�you'll find the bulb, which is entirely covered in layers of brown fibers. I have seen useful brushes and whisk brooms made from a cluster of these fibers that have been gathered and securely wrapped on one end with some cordage.

For the soap, you remove the brown fiber until you have the white bulb. It is formed in layers, just like an onion, and you'll find it sticky and soapy to handle. I have heard that some Indians ate these bulbs when roasted, but I always found that it was too much like eating soap! Perhaps I baked it wrong.

Take a few layers of the white bulbs, add water, and agitate between your hands. A rich lather results, which you can use to take a bath, wash your hair, or wash your clothes.

The bulbs can be dug year round if you know where to dig. When the plant is dormant in late fall and winter, there is only scant evidence to tell you that the bulbs are underground. Though the bulbs can be dug and dried for future use, the fresh bulb is superior.

Buffalo Gourd

Buffalo Gourd ( Cucurbita foetidissima ) is widely spread throughout the Southwestern United States and can be found in remote deserts and in urban vacant lots. It also goes by such local names as coyote melon and calabazilla. This is an obvious relative of squash and pumpkins. The Southwestern Indians have used the small orange-shaped gourds as rattles, though they make a somewhat inferior product. The wandering vine arises from a huge underground root, and the stiff leaves often stand upright. They have a unique aroma, and the leaves are covered with tiny rigid spines.

To make soap, pinch off a handful of the tender, growing tips, or just the older leaves if that's all you can find. Add water and agitate between your hands. A green, frothy lather results, which Southwestern tribes used for washing clothes. However, buffalo gourd is regarded by some as the soap of last resort since the tiny hairs may cause irritation to the skin.

Mountain Lilac

Mountain lilac ( Ceanothus species ) is a shrub to a small tree that is fairly common throughout the West. When you are hiking through chaparral, desert, or mountain re gions in the spring, you will notice a spot of white or blue or purple on the hillside or along the trail. There are many species that you can use for soap, and they also go by the names of buck brush, snowbrush, and soapbloom. Since the botanical features of each species varies, the easiest way to determine if you have a mountain lilac is to take a handful of blossoms, add water, and rub between your hands. You'll get a good lather with a mild aroma if you have mountain lilac.

By late spring to early summer, the flowers fall off and the tiny, sticky, green fruits develop. These too can be rubbed be tween the hands with water to make a good soap. The fruits can also be dried and then reconstituted later when soap is needed. I tried making soap with fruits that I had dried five years earlier. The fruits were very hard, so I first ground them up in my mor tar and pestle. Then I added water, rubbed vigorously, and had soap. Not as good as from the fresh fruit, but soap nevertheless.


Cover freshly harvested soapwort leaves with rain water. Bring to a boil. Strain off leaves and use as a hair or face wash for eczema, acne or just plain fun. Doubles as a fabric wash to restore colors.

Soap Lily

The soap lily is a bulbous plant from California where it grows on dry, open hills and plains and occasionally in woods. The bulb, stripped of its outer covering, is very rich in saponins and can as be dried and grated up as required to be used as soap flakes. Also, it's said that the sap that exudes from a baking bulb can be used as a glue.

Soaproot ( Chenopodium califor nicum )

Soaproot has a large taproot, with a shape similar to a carrot or a large ginseng root. In hard soil the root can be a foot deep, and you'll need a good digging stick or a shovel to reach it.

To make soap, you first grate the root with your knife or with a kitchen grater. Then you add water and rub between the hands to get a top-quality, thick lather. It's a remarkable experience to produce that frothy lather from this plant. In most cases, it seems superior to even store-bought soaps, and it cleans quite well.

Native peoples often dried and stored this root for later use. When dry, it seems like a rock or a piece of hardwood. Yet, once grated and water added, you can still get a top-quality soap.


There are numerous species of yucca found widely, mostly throughout the Plains and Western states. They resemble large pin cushions with their long, linear, needle-tipped leaves. In fact, yucca can truly be called the "grocery store" or the "hardware store" of the wild since this plant produces not only soap, but several good foods, tinder, top-quality fiber, sewing needles, and carrying cases or quivers from the mature, hollowed-out flower stalks.

The soap from the leaf is perhaps 10 to 20 percent inferior to the soap from the root, but you get this leaf soap at perhaps 5 percent of the labor needed to dig up a root.

When you need soap, carefully cut off one leaf. Be very careful not to slice your fingers on the very sharp edges of the leaf. Then, snip off the sharp tip so you don't poke yourself. Strip the leaf into fibers until you have a handful of very thin strands. Then, add water, agi tate between your hands and you have a good-quality soap.

Liquid Hand Soap

1 bar of soap, small (not super size) 3 C. water

Take your bar of soap (we use Dove or store brand like it, because it's more moisturizing), and grate it with a cheese grater. Pour the water and grated soap into a microwaveable container and cook on high for 3 min. Remove and stir until all soap bits have melted (put in a bit longer, if needed). Let it cool, then pour into pumps (leftover from store bought liquid soap), and the remainder in any container with a lid. Makes about 24 oz.


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