By Maryann Readal
How can a gardener resist an herb with the name bouncing Bet? I could not resist this delicate pink and floppy plant after seeing it blooming in the summer heat in my friend’s garden. After hearing the name, I was curious about the story behind its title. For as you know, many herbs have interesting stories to tell.
Bouncing Bet, Saponaria officinalis, sometimes called soapwort, latherwort, and lady’s wash bowl earned some of these names because of the saponins in the roots and leaves of the plant. Since the Middle Ages, the leaves and roots have been boiled in water to make a soapy lather that is good for washing and bleaching delicate fabrics. Research studies show that soapwort was used in the making of the Shroud of Turin. It is true that museums have used the soapy solution of soapwort to clean tapestries and other artifacts. In France and England, where textile shops stood, patches of soapwort could be found because the herb was used in the textile industry for cleaning purposes. The French name for it was herbe à foulon or Fuller’s Herb, a fuller being someone who works with cloth. In the early 1900’s it was referred to as old lady’s pinks referring to its tenacity and ability to withstand harsh conditions.
Friars brought the seeds to England from Europe, where they planted them near their monasteries and used soapwort to keep themselves clean. The English colonists brought the seeds to the New World and used the lather of the plant to restore a sheen to pewter, china, glass, and old lace.
As sometimes happens, a good thing becomes too good as bouncing Bet escaped the garden and became invasive in some parts of the United States and southern Canada, spreading into fields where cattle and horses grazed. The saponin in the plant is not kind to the digestive systems of some grazing animals. However, it does not seem to affect the deer that consistently consume it in my yard.
Because of the saponins it contains, soapwort’s roots and leaves are potentially toxic and should not be taken internally. However, beer brewers have used it to put a head on a mug of beer and it is used in the Middle Eastern tahini and the candy, halvah. Historically, soapwort has been used to treat rheumatism, coughs, and itchy skin conditions.
Soapwort is a perennial in the carnation family that grows in zones 3-9. It likes well-drained, alkaline soil, tolerates drought conditions, and likes sun to partial shade. It blooms in shades of white to pink single or double flower masses on a single stem. Bloom time is from spring to fall and it makes a nice ground cover. Despite the deer, I can’t resist trying to get it to spread in my more acidic soil. I love the flowers and love its rose-like smell.
Herb Society of America Medical Disclaimer … It is the policy of The Herb Society of America not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any medical or health treatment.