In the reading I've done, it seems there are medicinal uses for these berries as well, and you don't want to ingest them internally, but my focus is on their use for a laundry cleanser. I was drawn to statements by users of Soapnuts testifying to their usefulness as a hypo-allergenic cleanser not only for laundry, but also as a foamless shampoo and body soap. My own skin, over time, has developed a sensitivity to perfumes and chemicals in commercial soaps, and I've simplified my regimen to very basic cleansing products. My laundry soap has to be perfume-free, and I can't tolerate laundry softeners or dryer sheets. The idea of a completely natural, fuss-free berry to toss in with the laundry -- and even to re-use several times -- is really appealing.
In reading about the natural soaping action and its long-standing traditional use by native peoples, it reminded me of something I found out a few years ago when considering a move to Missouri. I was trying to find out about uses of plants used by the native Americans, and I ran across a mention of the use of Yucca roots as a laundry cleanser. I don't remember all the details, but I do remember that Yucca roots could be combined with water to form an effective washwater for clothing, after which the root could be saved for further washings. I wondered why someone hadn't marketed these roots for that reason, since it seemed so straightforward, except that few people these days handwash the bulk of their laundry.
When I found the Soapnut links recently, and saw that a lot of people are using them, I wondered if there are regional Soapberry trees a bit closer to home. If so, I could plant some and have a free source for years to come. I'm in Zone 9, which sometimes is restrictive as far as being able to grow trees found further north in the U.S. I was delighted to find that there are two soapberry trees that not only can be grown here in Florida, but also in the upper 48. The Western Soapberry (Sapindus Saponaria Drummondii) is found as far Northwest as Washington state, its territory arcing across the central and southern US and up through the mid-Atlantic seaboard -- and the Florida Soapberry (Sapindus Saponaria Marginatus) is found in some parts of California, and Florida.
The berries of both species here in the U.S. have been used traditinally by native American and Central American populations as soaps. Upon further investigation, it appears that not only is this tree easy to grow and adaptable to a variety of sites and soils, but it's non-invasive and is attractive as well. I'm definately interested in finding out if I could grow this tree to eliminate our need to purchase commercial soaps, both for laundry and for household cleaning and shampoo/body cleansers. How exciting a possibility, especially since it's supposed to be an excellent hypo-allergenic soap strong enough to get really dirty clothes sparkling clean as well as gently enough to use for babies or sensitive skin!
Now I'm hot on the trail of other native plants with traditional uses similar to the Soapberry. Since Saponin is the "soap agent," a basic Wikipedia search showed a long "laundry" list (haha, pun intended!) of other plants that also contain Saponin. Does this mean some of them can also be used similarly??
Here's the Wikipedia list:
Chlorogalum species, soap
Tuberous cucurbit species
Digitalis (as digitonin)
Gypsophila (Baby's Breath)
Panax (as ginsenoside)
saponaria (bois de Panama, member of the Rosaceae family)
americana (poke, pokeweed, pokeberry, poke greens, poke root, inkberry, poke
salit, poke salad)
Soapberry and many other
members of the family Sapindaceae, including buckeyes
(Soapwort, Bouncing Betty)
Isn't that list interesting...that all these plants contain a natural saponins...and applications... of some sort?? I don't have time to dive in depth into investigating each one...yet. But seeing such familiar plants on this list fascinates me as to how they, too, might be utilized in ways "lost" to our "modern" world. At any rate, it would appear we DO have plenty of natural laundy options, if only we'll keep looking. Looks like that will be material for a lot of upcoming reading!
Picture link: http://www.grownative.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=plants.plantDetail&plant_id=170