In the Herb Garden this week no. 12 (15.8.20)
Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis)
This vigorous perennial plant threatens to take over the Apothecary’s Garden at times but the pretty pink flowers are welcome in late summer and have just appeared in the garden this week.
Soapwort has been used as a medicine for liver complaints since ancient times and also as a remedy for arthritis and rheumatism as well as skin conditions, probably because of its anti-inflammatory properties.
However, it was also well known in the past as a source of soap. The roots and leaves, when boiled in water, produce a soapy lather which was used traditionally for washing cloth, particularly in the textile trade. We read* that:
‘the Fulling or Tucking process consisted of the closing together of the threads of newly woven woollen fabric with the assistance of soap, with the purpose of producing a grease free cloth of the correct thickness for future use, including dyeing’.
Apparently, plants can still often be found on the sites of old woollen mills, where it was grown before the commercial production of soap in the 1800s.
The gentle power of the saponins in soapwort are also ideal for shampooing delicate and historic fabrics and this practice has been revived by the National Trust, originally in the 1930s by Lady Meade-Fetherstonhaugh at Uppark in Sussex, where she spent over a decade preserving the degraded silk damask curtains in a solution of soapwort. You can now buy ‘Laundry Liquid’ in National Trust shops, made from soapwort mixed with other fragrant herbs! History repeats itself again.
*The Witheridge Historical Archive