Using Weeds: Soapwort

Over the past year or so I have written about several edible weeds in an effort to highlight useful weeds. However, weeds don’t have to be edible to be useful. In fact, many weeds are most certainly not edible, but that doesn’t mean they are of no use to humans. Soapwort, for example, is poisonous, and while it does have a history of being used internally as medicine, ingesting it is not advised and should only be done under the direction of a doctor. A much less risky activity would be to make soap out of it.

soapwort (Saponaria officinalis)

Saponaria officinalis, commonly known as bouncing bet, hedge pink, fuller’s herb, scourwort, and soapweed or soapwort, is an herbaceous perennial native to Europe. It has been planted widely in flower beds and herb gardens outside of its native range, desired both for its beauty and utility. Capitalizing on our appreciation for it, soapwort has expanded beyond our garden borders and into natural areas, as well as vacant lots, roadsides, and other neglected spaces. Even in a garden setting it can be a bit of a bully, especially if ignored for a season or two.

The stems of soapwort grow to about two feet tall, are unbranched, and sometimes tinged with pink, purple, or red. The leaves are oblong and oppositely-arranged, and their bases form prominent collars around the stems. Showy clusters of flowers are found atop the stems throughout the summer. Like other flowers in the pink family (Caryophyllaceae), they are cigar-shaped at the base and opened wide at the end, showing off 5 distinct petals with notches at their tips. The petals of soapwort flowers bend backwards, with their sex parts protruding outwards. In his description of the flowers, John Eastman remarks in The Book of Field and Roadside that “the reflexed petals surrounding the sexual organs give the impression of flagrant thrust; this is a gaudy, unshy flower.”

collared stem of soapwort (Saponaria officinalis)

The fragrant flowers are pink to white in color. They open in the evening and remain open for a few short days. In an individual flower, pollen matures and is mostly shed before the stigma is ready to accept it. This helps reduce the chance of self-pollination. Cross pollination occurs with the assistance of moths who visit the flowers at night, as well as bees and other flower-visiting insects that come along during the daytime. Soapwort fruits are oval capsules containing as many as 500 kidney-shaped seeds. Seeds aren’t essential to the plants spread though, as much of its colonization occurs via vigorous rhizomes.

In fact, vegetative reproduction is the means by which soapwort forms such expansive, thick patches. It also helps that it’s poisonous. The saponins – its soap making compounds – that it produces in its roots, shoots, and leaves deter most insects and other animals from eating it. It has a reputation for poisoning horses, cows, and other livestock, and so is unwelcome in pastures and rangelands. Saponins are also poisonous to fish, so growing soapwort near fish ponds is not advised.

soapwort (Saponaria officinalis)

Soapwort occurs in a variety of soils including sandy, dry, and rocky sites and is surprisingly drough-tolerant, fine qualities to have when colonizing neglected sites. While most other organisms ignore soapwort, it has a friend in humans. Eastman sums this up well: “Soapwort’s most important associate – as is true of most plants we label weeds – is undoubtedly humankind, without whose helpful interventions the plant would surely be much rarer than it is.”

I made a soapy liquid out of soapwort by following a recipe that can be found on various blogs and websites by searching “saponaria soap recipe.” Basically it’s a cup of fresh leaves and stems along with a cup of dried leaves and stems added to a quart of distilled water brought to a boil. After simmering for 15 minutes and then allowing it to cool, strain the mixture through cheese cloth, and it’s ready to go.

This gentle but effective soap can be used for cleaning countertops and other surfaces, as well as dishes, fabrics, and skin. Several sources say it is particularly useful for cleaning delicate fabrics. Sierra and I both found it to have a cooked cabbage or spinach scent to it. This can be masked by adding a few drops of essential oil. Despite its odd aroma, both Sierra and I were impressed by its cleansing power and plan to use it more often.

dried leaves of soapwort

soapwort soap

From Pine Tree to Pine Tar (and a bit about baseball)

Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) is a Eurasian native, distributed across Europe into Eastern Siberia. It is the national tree of Scotland, and the only native pine in northern Europe. Human activity has pushed native populations to extinction; while, at the same time, appreciation for this tree has led to widespread introduction in other parts of the world. Like other pines, humans and Scots pine have a long relationship going back millennia. Pines are incredibly useful trees, which explains both the overexploitation and mass planting of Scots pine.

Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) via wikimedia commons

In Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, Scots pine not only has a long history of being used as a building material, but also for producing pine tar. As the name suggests, pine tar is a dark, sticky substance extracted from pine wood. Wood tar production dates back centuries and has been made from a number of tree species, including pines and other conifers as well as deciduous trees like birch and beech. Wood tar has myriad uses – as an ingredient in soaps, shampoos, and cosmetics; as medicine; as a food additive; as waterproofing for ships, roofs, and ropes; in hoof care products for horses. It’s no wonder that as demand for pine tar increased in Scandinavia, it became a cash crop for peasants, earning it the nickname “peasant tar.”

Pine tar soap – a decent soap if you can tolerate the intense smell. Regarding the smell of pine tar, Theodore Kaye writes, “The aroma produces reactions that are as strong as the scent; few people are ambivalent about its distinctive smell.”

A study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science examines small and large funnel-shaped pits in Sweden determined to be used for making pine tar. The smaller pits date back to between 240 – 540 AD, the Late Roman Iron Age. They would have been used by Swedes living in small scale settlements. The larger pits date back to 680 – 1160 AD and signify a shift towards large scale production during the Viking Age. As the centuries proceeded, Sweden became a major exporter of pine tar. Their product set the standard. Even today “Stockholm Tar” refers to pine tar of the highest quality.

As Europeans colonized North America, they were introduced to several new pine tree species from which to extract pine tar, including longleaf pine (Pinus palustris), a southeastern native with exceptionally long needles. Pine tar production was especially prolific in the southeastern states, thanks in part to the abundance of longleaf pine and others. North and South Carolina were dominating production by the 1800’s, which helps explain North Carolina’s nickname, The Tar Heel State.

Extracting pine tar from pine wood is fairly simple. The process is called destructive distillation. Pine wood is placed in a contained, oxygen-free environment and subjected to high heat. As the pine tar is released from the wood, the wood turns to charcoal. This is what was happening in the small and large funnel-shaped pits discussed earlier. Root pieces and stumps of Scots pine were placed into the pits. Brush wood was piled on top and then set on fire. As the brush burned, the pine wood below carbonized, and pine tar collected at the bottom of the pit. In larger pits, the pine tar was piped out and deposited into a barrel – a set up known as a pine tar dale.

pine tar dale illustration

Modern production of pine tar is done in kilns (or in laboratories). The concept is the same – wood is enclosed in the kiln, heat is applied, and pine tar drips from the bottom of the kiln. Heartwood, also known as fatwood, is the best part of the pine tree for making pine tar, particularly the heartwood of old stumps. Making pine tar is such a simple process that anyone can do it, and there are numerous tutorials available online.

My familiarity with pine tar comes from being a baseball fan. Pine tar is a useful, albeit controversial, substance in this sport. Batters have a variety of means to help them get a better grip on the bat in order to improve their hitting. Rubbing pine tar on the bat handle is one of them. However, according to Major League Baseball rules, anything applied to, adhered to, or wrapped around the bat to help with grip is not allowed past the bottom 18 inches of the bat. Pine tar is allowed on the bat handle, but if applied past that 18 inches mark, the bat becomes illegal.

pine tar stick for baseball bat handles

This rule goes mostly ignored; unless, of course, someone on the other team rats you out. Which is exactly what happened in 1983 to the Kansas City Royals in a game against the New York Yankees. Royals batter, George Brett, had just hit a home run, which put the Royals in the lead. It had been suspected for a while that Brett had been tarring his bat beyond the legal limit, and this home run was the last straw for Yankees manager, Billy Martin. He brought the suspected illegal bat to the attention of the umpires, and after measuring the bat’s pine tar stain they found it to be well beyond 18 inches. The home run was recalled, and the Yankees went on to win the game.

It doesn’t end there though. After a repeal, it was decided that the dismissal of the home run was the wrong call. If an illegal bat is in play, it should be removed. That’s all. The home run still stands. The Royals and Yankees were ordered to replay the game, starting at the point where Brett had hit his home run. This time the Royals won.

This saga is well known in baseball. There is even a book all about it, as well as a country song and t-shirts. But that’s only part of baseball’s pine tar controversy. While batters are allowed to use it on their bats, pitchers are not allowed to use it to better grip the ball while pitching (however, they can use rosin, which curiously enough, is also made from pine trees). Of course, that doesn’t stop them from trying to get away with it. Sometimes they get caught, like Michael Pineda infamously did in 2014. There are arguments for allowing its use – and perhaps in the future the rules will change – but for now pine tar use by pitchers remains prohibited.

Further Reading – Medicinal Uses for Pine Tar:

Field Trip: Green Spring Gardens and Meadowlark Botanical Gardens

Last month, Sierra and I were in Washington D.C. for the American Public Gardens Association annual meeting. We didn’t get to visit nearly as many gardens as I would have liked. Time was limited, and rain spoiled things a bit. However, we did get a chance to take an all day field trip to a few gardens in nearby Virginia. A couple of the gardens we visited on that trip were Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, VA and Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, VA.

Both gardens are quite large – Green Spring is over 30 acres and Meadowlark covers over 90 acres – and there wasn’t time to get the full experience at either location. Thus, my photos are scant and obviously not fully representative of either place. Either way, we had a good time visiting both gardens.

Green Spring Gardens

The Fairfax County Parks Authority owns and operates Green Spring Gardens. Among other partnerships, they receive considerable support from a non-profit organization called Friends of Green Spring. Although it was the wrong time of year to see them in bloom, Green Spring Gardens has a nationally accredited witch hazel collection that I’m sure would be worth checking out in the winter months. I enjoyed walking through the native plant garden, seeing the newly planted crevice garden, and learning about magnolia bogs from a friendly and enthusiastic volunteer.

the pink form of smooth azalea (Rhododendron arborescens) in the Virginia Native Plant Garden

jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) in the Virginia Native Plant Garden

bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera) in the Virginia Native Plant Garden

hornbeam inflorescence (Carpinus sp.)

newly planted crevice garden

rain lily (Zephyranthes sp.) in the crevice garden

Meadowlark Botanical Gardens

Meadowlark is owned and operated by NOVA Parks. Its immense size made it difficult to decide what to check out in the little time we had, but we were happy with our decision to stop by the wetlands (to see the knees on the Taxodium distichum) and walk through the forested nature trail. We also had fun watching all the bumblebees lumber about from flower to flower.

lichen on Yoshino cherry (Prunus x yedoensis)

bumblebee on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

bumblebees climbing inside leatherflower blossoms (Clematis viorna)

scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma)

A small peak into what was a very large Fairy Garden

blue leaf form of dusty zenobia (Zenobia pulverulenta)

bear’s breeches (Acanthus sp.)

Armenian cranesbill (Geranium psilostemon)

More Awkward Botany Field Trips: