This October, I was in Taroko Gorge, Taiwan, where I spotted a sapindus mukorossi tree. What the heck? I hear you ask. Good question. Used to wash clothes, dishes and hair, the Chinese Soap Berry was the equivalent of our soapwort (saponaria officinalis, also called wild sweet William), a poisonous plant found in parts of the UK countryside. Because soapwort contains saponin, a natural toxin which, when shaken with water, makes foam, leaves and/or roots were boiled up by our ancestors for a free cleaning agent. Remember, from 1712-1853, soap in the UK was taxed. Just imagine that!!!!
For the Taiwanese, depending on the season, they used the skin of the berry or the bark, both of which contain saponin. When berries were available, they used them to make soap bubbles but in winter, people used the bark. Wrapped in cloth, it was squeezed to make those all-important bubbles. Of course, once chemical agents had been invented, the poor old soap berry tree went out of favour. Who wanted the hard graft of fuddy duddy methods when it could be bought ready made? Fashions change so recently Grandma’s more environmentally-friendly natural products have returned to favour.
Click here to learn more about the lives of our female ancestors.