I'm interested in both trees and water, and the many ways in which they're connected. Mature trees for example, are daily drawing up tens of thousands of gallons of water, capturing only about a tenth of that in their own biomass. The rest evaporates and accounts for the majority of inland rain, along with moisture produced by other plants.
And talking of water, there are trees and other plants that have helped us for eons with our washing. A variety of plants contain saponins, surfactants some of which can be used as soaps. Saponins are found in the aptly named soapnut tree, soapbark tree, and soapwort plants as well as yucca, peas and soybeans, and many more. Certain saponins also have insecticidal and medicinal properties.
There is interest in the US in using deseeded and dried soapnuts (also called soapberries, and actually fruits) as an alternative to laundry detergent. Most of the enthusiasm is centered on the species Sapindus mukorossi, found in the Himalayas, including Nepal where current US imports are sourced. But there are other species in the genus, which were once used for the same purpose by Native Americans.
I was introduced to this recently by an aquatic bodyworker who like me cares very much about water quality and who told me of an entrepreneurial friend who is promoting them. I contacted The SoapNut Lady and she generously sent me a large sample bag of soapnuts to try myself and to share with local friends. This post is part of my sharing and an offering of my appreciation for Peggy.
Many of us are aware that conventional laundry detergents contain non-renewable petroleum-derived ingredients, synthetic fragrances and chemical whiteners that are environmentally harmful. These chemicals drain out of the washing machine and into groundwater, contaminating water supplies and negatively impacting aquatic life.
I live in an Ozark forest on karst where drainage into the water system is especially rapid. I've been purchasing my laundry detergent from the local healthfood shop. It's a concentrated liquid laundry detergent that contains '100% natural anionic coconut kernel oil-based surfactant and purified water' - nothing else. It comes in a recyclable plastic container.
It's low sudsing, greywater safe and biodegradable. On the website Ecos say: 'We check possible ingredients for what’s called ‘Responsible Sustainability’, by asking questions like: Is this from a rainforest? Is it needed in the area to sustain any endangered wildlife? Are workers given a fair wage for their labor? If all indicators are a go, then we move on.'
I'm glad about this but I often wonder if there might be an adequate local source - neither coconut or soapnut trees grow in this forest - that I could use, and that would also be harmless and effective. I'm interested in supporting sustainable community projects that not only provide income for people but also safeguard the land all over the world, and especially right where I live.
Asking these questions can get complicated, and challenging in practice, as you'll see. Below is an outline of the meandering journey this took me on this week, some of which I hope will be thought-provoking and even helpful to you. Let me know your insights and please add any corrections or comments below.
I could make my own laundry detergent from ingredients I already use, and store it in the same big Ecos bottle. I'd need some bars of castile soap (which I could buy paper-wrapped) and baking soda (which comes in a cardboard box). I use Dr Bronner soap for body care and baking soda for house-cleaning. I like the possibility of cutting down on packaging this way.
Here's one recipe I found among many for homemade liquid laundry detergents:
1. Gather: 2 gallons of hot water, one bar of castile soap, and 2 cups of baking soda.
2. Grate the bar of soap.
3. Melt the grated soap in a saucepan with enough hot water to cover. Cook on medium-low heat, stirring frequently until soap is melted.
4. Pour the 2 gallons of hot water into a large pail. Add the melted soap and stir well.
5. Add the baking soda (for water softening) and stir well.
6. Use 1/2 cup per full load or up to 1 cup per soiled load.
I could also save myself a bit of time and simply use 1/4 cup to 1/3 cup of liquid castile soap (from a bottle that I can refill at my local healthfood store) for one regular load, depending on the hardness of the water, adding a dash of baking soda. Though the baking soda and soap reduce my packaging, they've both required some chemical processing as noted below.
ARM & HAMMER® Baking Soda begins as a mined ore called trona from Wyoming where deposits formed over four million years ago after the evaporation of salt lakes. Trona is heated to make soda ash (sodium carbonate), which is then dissolved in water. When carbon dioxide is bubbled through the solution, sodium bicarbonate forms and precipitates out.
Castile soap was orginally made from olive oil but now means any vegetable oil-based soap. Dr Bronner bar and liquid soaps are made from 'a combination of organic extra virgin coconut, olive, jojoba and hemp oils, together with pure essential oils'. The liquid soaps use potassium hydroxide to saponify the vegetable oils, while sodium hydroxide used to make the hard bar soaps.
Which brings me back to simple soapnuts. The hard outer covering is soaked in water to release the saponins which work by reducing the surface tension of the water and freeing dirt, grime and oils from the clothing. Evidently the saponins rinsed out in the water are harmless (though as noted later, we might look into this more since some saponins are natural toxins).
My first question to Peggy The SoapNut Lady was about her source for the soapnuts since I wondered about the sense of transporting them from so far away (Himalayas), and whether the local people and place were benefiting also. I learned that Peggy is 'working with a family farm in Nepal, and the nuts are picked and cleaned by the village women and children.'
She added: 'The project that they have been part of is the GROW NEPAL. They plant 20,000 seeds every year to create a sustainable product for their people and environment.' Peggy intends to go to Nepal during harvest, to witness this process for herself, and is 'hoping to create a women's co-operative, so that they may benefit even more from their labor.'
'Grow Nepal' has apparently been established as a non-profit community based organization (there is a Facebook Page too) 'to preserve and manage the natural resources and tools, sustainable preservation of village tourism by protecting the social and cultural traditions for the enhancement of the life standard of Dalit and back warded cast people and economically back warded village women.'
I found a couple of recent videos on YouTube that give some idea of Grow Nepal's planting project and how the soapnuts are harvested and processed - this labor seems to involve lots of people if the video is anything to go by. It would be interesting to know more about the historical use of the soapnut trees there and how they fit into the ecosystem.
I'm still left wondering whether the Nepalese soapnuts might be best promoted first in Asian countries (perhaps they are?) where there is surely also a great need for environmentally safe cleaning products. The SoapNut Lady tells me she has resolved the transportation issue but I'm not sure she understood that I was talking about the energy costs of that - getting that bulky material from Nepal to America.
Can we grow soapnuts here? About this, Peggy said: 'Yes, we can grow here in this country and am currently working on that very thing, as the Grow Nepal project would love to have a "sister" in the US. They are fast growing, four feet in one year, and can harvest in five, sometimes before.' (My research found that other species of Sapindus do already grow in Florida, Hawaii and Mexico - but the saponin types in them may be less effective as detergents?)
[The way soapnuts are harvested in Nepal reminded me of the black walnut harvest here in the Ozarks. Here it's also a labor-intensive process, and begins today October 1 in over 200 locations across 12 states. I believe that the majority of the hand-picked harvest comes from Missouri, where the world's leading supplier of American black walnuts has been operating since 1946. It's community work too. Could bode well for a saponin tree industry?]
The soapnut trees themselves do not seem to be harmed by the harvest - though they are shaken vigorously in the video from Nepal. The fruit fall onto sheets and are later dried and broken to remove the seeds (one source said the black seeds stain clothing) which are kept presumably for planting. The timing of the harvest affects saponin strength, as does the species.
One blogger reports that he did find seeds in his supply and successfully germinated some. Lots of good discussion follows his 2007 post. Including the interesting note that the original US soapnut seller back in 1921 (as reported by Scientific American I understand) was Edward Moulie, nicknamed Johnnie Soap Nut Seed of course!
The SoapNut Lady told me she has sole distributorship (perhaps for the Grow Nepal family) in several countries, including the US, but there's plenty of competition on the internet with equitable prices. She offers a 1 kg bag (about 330 washes - depending on your water hardness) for $30 which compares favorably with the Ecos I've been using. It comes in a biodegradable plastic bag, and bulk-for-bulk could also go further than liquid Ecos.
Some distributing companies already seem to have overlooked the simplicity of the raw soapnuts by offering bottles of liquid, which is actually easy to make yourself. Here's one comprehensive version I found for turning soapnuts into a liquid concentrate that can also be used as a multi-purpose household cleaner, liquid hand soap, shampoo, and more.
- boil 4 cups of water in a heavy saucepan
- turn off the heat and add 6-8 soapnuts (or 1/2 cup of bits)
- cover and let sit overnight
- sieve out soapnut shells (compostable)
- pour cooled liquid into a container
You can add essential oil if desired, for example lemon or tea tree oil for bathroom, lavender for laundry loads, sweet orange for dishwasher. This batch is said to wash at least 16 loads (1/4 to 1/2 cup per load) and this source recommends it be refrigerated in a clearly labeled bottle if kept for more than a week. Today, I tried it in my dishwasher and it worked well.
Some things people have liked about soapnuts include: that they're helpful for those with sensitivity chemical detergents and synthetic perfumes; they leave no soap residue; clothes come out soft and no fabric softeners are needed; colors stay intact and fading does not occur; they have only a mild vinegar smell that disappears when clothes dry; and finally the multiplicity of cleaning uses.
In fact, Peggy is most excited about this: 'The concentrate is really where I hope people will go, as it will replace all the personal, as well as household products. It is an amazing natural insect repellent'. The liquid concentrate has been used as a soak for fruits and vegetables to remove toxic residues (10 min, then rinse); and an insecticidal plant spray against black flies and aphids.
For laundry though you can just use raw soapnuts. Different sources suggest anything from 2 to 10 soapnut shells per load - it depends on the hardness of your water. These are placed in a drawstring muslin bag (or a tied sock) which goes in the washing machine drum. The SoapNut Lady says you could save water and energy by stopping the cycle after the wash has spun, no rinse needed.
If you're doing a cold-water wash (which I do to save energy), some say it won't work well while others suggest soaking the bag in a cup of hot water for a short while and pouring the water and bag into the wash. Seems to work for me. These same soapnuts will do several washes - the hot water test can be used to see if there is still some foaming (shake in a bottle). Then compost the used soapnuts.
More on saponins. Research has shown that several types of saponins are found in soapnuts in addition to the detergent (steroidal aglycones that cut grease but are relatively gentle on the skin, making them useful in parts of the world where laundry is still typically done by hand). There are also spermicidal, anti-malarial and pain-killing (anti-inflammatory and migrain reducing) saponins in soapnuts.
This adds perhaps a note of caution to the tendency to excessive use that is typical of our western culture. We probably ought to know a bit more about the effects of these 'exotic' saponins on our water systems (positive and otherwise) before we release them in any great quantity into new wilds. Interestingly, we already use plant saponins for other purposes in other products.
For example, yucca and the soapbark tree saponins are used to produce the foam in some beverages, like root beer. Saponins have been used for odor control, and look promising for controlling internal parasites, cholesterol reduction and inhibiting cancer cell growth. I suspect we still have much to learn about these plant chemicals, especially (as already mentioned) if used in any great quantity in concentrated form.
There are two more potential alternatives for detergent active saponins. Horse-chestnut seeds were once used in Europe for whitening hemp, flax, silk and wool. About 20 seeds were sufficient for six liters of soft rain or river water (hard well water was not as effective). They were peeled, dried, and ground, then steeped in cold water. The liquid was renown for not damaging delicate cloth.
The other is soapwort - a perennial herb that grows in Europe and throughout the United States, and has long been used as an herbal remedy and for cleaning. The root is the best part of the plant to use for soap, but you also can use the stems and leaves. It is recommended as a cleanser for sensitive skin and also for delicate fabrics (for example it's been used for old lace and paintings).
There's a soapwort ground cover that goes by the same common name, but the one used for soap is Saponaria officinalis, which can get to 3 ft high and grows in US hardiness zones 3-9. It needs well composted soil, good drainage, and partial shade. Apparently, it can be a bit invasive but if you're using it for soap-making perhaps that would be one means of control. I'm thinking of trying it.
I should say that I've liked the results so far with the soapnuts that The SoapNut Lady kindly shared with me, and I will be staying in touch with what she and Grow Nepal are doing regards helping those farflung communities and their land. Using the raw plant material directly is appealing. And I've appreciated the impetus to review what goes into the cleaning agents I use and thus into the greywater leaving our forest cabin.
Beyond the inspiring reminder of the power of plants, the science and the practical applications of these gifts, there are the effects of commercialization of anything in our overcrowded world. We have not been born in a time where every item of clothing is handmade, precious and delicate, and comes from plants grown near home and then washed safely in clean spring water or rivers.
Still, we might reflect on what the changes have meant, how much that has impacted our environment, and if we can return to a more direct way of living that connects us with the plants that are right around us and the watershed that gives and receives the water upon which we depend. Could our native saponins be as valuable to us as exotic ones are to the people near them? Much to ponder ...
Other posts of interest
Life in an Ozark Forest
Sustainable spa products on Vision Spa Retreat