Soapwort
Saponaria officinalis L.
Family: Caryophyllaceae, Pink
Genus: Saponaria
Synonyms:
Other names: bouncingbet, latherwort
Nomenclature: officinalis = medicinal
Nativity / Invasiveness: introduced plant
Medicinal plant
Toxic plant
Description

General: perennial, hairless or almost so, very leafy, often in colonies. Stems simple, 40-90 cm tall, from rhizomes.

Leaves: opposite, lanceolate to oblanceolate, mostly 4-10 cm long and 1.5-4 cm broad, as many as 20 pairs on the stem, short-stalked or the upper ones stalkless.

Flowers: many in usually much-congested clusters, fragrant, often double. Calyx 15-20 mm long at flowering, up to 25 mm in fruit, 20-nerved, narrow, often deeply cleft in one or more places. Corolla white to pink, showy, stalks of the petals usually slightly exceeding the calyx, without basal lobes, the blade mostly 10-15 mm long, obovate to wedge-shaped, shallowly notched on ends. Appendages 2, linear, 1-2 mm. long. Styles 2. July-September.

Fruits: capsules, the seeds black, about 1.7 mm long, concentrically dotted with minute pimples, the low ones round to oblong, their margins minutely toothed.


Distribution

A rather showy species, formerly widely grown as an ornamental, now found as an escape along roadsides and on disturbed ground, in w. and s.c. parts of MT. Native to Europe, now established in temperate N. America.
Medicinal Uses

Soapwort's main medicinal use is as an expectorant. Its strongly irritant action within the gut is thought to stimulate the cough reflex and increase the production of a more fluid mucus within the respiratory passages.
The whole plant, but especially the root, has agents that act as a tonic, are mildly urine-inducing, that gradually restore health, counteract scrofula, increase bile flow to the intestines, tend to purify and cleanse the blood, induce sweating, induce the removal (coughing up) of mucous secretions from the lungs, cause cleansing or watery evacuation of the bowels, and promote sneezing and nasal discharges. A decoction of the whole plant can be applied externally to treat itchy skin. The plant has proved of use in the treatment of jaundice and other visceral obstructions, but is rarely used internally in modern herbalism due to its irritant effect on the digestive system. When taken in excess, it destroys red blood cells and causes paralysis of the vasomotor center.
The plant contains saponins. Although toxic, these substances are very poorly absorbed by the body and so tend to pass through without causing harm. They are also broken down by thorough cooking. Saponins are found in many plants, including several that are often used for food, such as certain beans. It is advisable not to eat large quantities of food that contain saponins. Saponins are much more toxic to some creatures, such as fish, and hunting tribes have traditionally put large quantities of them in streams, lakes etc in order to stupefy or kill the fish.
The root is harvested in the spring and can be dried for later use. One of the saponins in this plant is proving of interest in the treatment of cancer, it is cytotoxic to the Walker Carcinoma in vitro.



Toxic Properties

This plant contains saponins. Although fairly toxic, these substances are poorly absorbed by the body, most passing straight through without any harm. Saponins can be found in a number of common foods such as some beans. Saponins are much more toxic to some creatures, such as fish, and hunting tribes have traditionally put large quantities of them in streams, lakes etc in order to stupefy or kill the fish.



Other Uses

A soap can be obtained by boiling the whole plant (but especially the root) in water. It is a gentle effective cleaner, used especially on delicate fabrics that can be harmed by modern synthetic soaps (it has been used to clean the Bayeaux tapestry). It effects a luster in the fabric. The best soap is obtained by infusing the plant in warm water. The roots can be dried and stored for later use. The plant is sometimes recommended as a hair shampoo, though it can cause eye irritations. The plant spreads vigorously and can be used as a ground cover when planted about 3 feet apart each way.


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