Soapwort and Strange Blooms

The mushroom season is just around the corner, but two streets away on the canal’s edge there are also masses of a very interesting herb, and that’s soapwort (Saponaria officinalis). Though I do have vague memories of watching a jolly Ray Mears identify this plant on the telly, I first got to know this plant last year, but this season I wanted very much to experiment a bit with its properties and to see what could be made out of it. For anyone trying to find it without access to a good field guide, it grows in moist conditions in partial shade, has a carnation (pink)- like aspect revealing its heritage (Caryophyllaceae), which can be easily seen on both flowers, coming in both cream and pink, and the flower-buds, which have the classic ‘pink’ (as in carnation) calyx or flower-base. The leaves are rather inconspicuous though if you become familiar with its habitat in subsequent years, they do help to shorten the search.

Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis)

More fittingly, the most typical way of identifying the plant is to test for the saponins responsible for its namesake: crushing the plant and applying a little water, a mild lather is formed, though the ‘soapy’ texture will probably tell you first that you have what you’re looking for. The more you work the crushed leaves in the hands, the more saponins are released, and water certainly helps the freeing-up of these properties of the plant. The smell, however, is decidedly ‘planty’, though I imagine few people will be expecting a waft of detergent-like freshness from the crushing of any wild herb. The roots are a creeping rhizomatous affair, meaning you’ll often pull up a piece with two or three plants in series along its length. More about the roots later.

Bagged soapwort, with Richard Mabey-style floral arrangement

The internet is rife with doubled/tripled/quadrupled information about soapwort, and it would be easy to imagine it as some organic alternative to bleach and high-powered cleaning solutions whose marketing involves scrawny men wearing vests and washing-up gloves. The claim that soapwort is ‘organic’ is in any way highly misleading – the saponins of soapwort will still damage aquatic environments, much in the same way that aboriginal peoples use native saponin-rich plants to poison ponds in fishing. A compound’s ‘organicity’ does not stop it being harmful in some cases, and application or disposal of soapwort products in the wrong places would defeat the object of creating them in the first place.

That said, in the common context, soapwort soap is very mild and non-abrasive. A cold (or at least lukewarm) extract of the saponins gives a slight lather, and works fine for washing the hands. It could be improved in any ‘cosmetic’ sense by the addition of other herbs, but in effect it does the job of a small amount of washing-up liquid in a fifth of the water that would fill a kitchen sink. People with sensitive skin might find it interesting that residues of soapwort soap do not irritate the way other soaps tend to. I imagine this is due to the alcohol content of some commercial soaps. It could at the very least replace the kitchen hand-soap.

Around 100g soapwort in a few inches of warm water

Information on the current commercial use of soapwort is hard to come by. Every second source boasts that the herb is used to clean delicate historical cloth such as the Bayeux Tapestry, but if so, the company supplying it is highly- exclusive (or even reclusive). Most results bring up home-made recipes, and I imagine its use is best suited to replacing unnecessary detergents, especially where they can be entirely disposed of. This for me means specifically travel-soap for hiking or summer camping trips; exactly this kind of self-reliance – sourcing a tool from nature when you’re in the outdoors – this rings with a specific kind of importance I don’t feel I need to define. But increasing numbers of people are investing in ‘organic’ soaps and washing-up liquid alternatives, and therefore it seems the effectiveness of soapwort it at least a relevant area for investigation. For ‘industrial’ applications, the dried root can be powdered and is supposedly much more saponin-rich than the shy leaves – I decided to dry 200g fresh roots to test this at a later date. Summer is most probably the worst time of the year to do this, as the plants are using energy from the roots in order to flower and set seed; early summer or autumn would provide more root for your efforts:

Soapwort roots drying on the windowsill

And, as advertised, other stuff, such as ‘yeast-bloom’. As already mentioned I’ve been finding it hard to keep away from the hobby-vintner’s medicine bag by limiting my non-wild or non-foraged wine ingredients to the foment itself (wine yeast). The last five attempts at fermentation of various berries, fruits and flowers have culminated severally in failed fermentation, stuck fermentation, no fermentation, and unknown (we’ll see in a few weeks when the stuff will most likely turn out to be foul). At this juncture, I’d decided to take a break from experimental wine-making, harvesting 4kg Oregon grapes (Mahonia aquifolium), the bright-blue, juice-exuding fruit of the yellow-flowering mahonia bush. After dissolving a little beet sugar into the mix I corked about 5l pure extract and put the bottle in my room, looking forward to some interesting juice at breakfast the next day. The berries, however, had other ideas. The next morning, I woke to find a spreading pool of red at one end of my bedroom floor; the walls, my clothes, my only half-passable suit, my spare bed-linen, my books, everything was covered with blue mahonia splashes, as if a flock of magpies had come into my room and pulled off some act of mass-defecation while I was sleeping. The cork – which had hit the ceiling – lay spent on the seat of my armchair.

The ceiling

Now, to say ‘I shouldda knowed it’ is the intellectual comfort of those around for the aftermath, but I should really have thought before corking the pure juice, but somehow the witch’s tittedness of my home brews had pretty much jaded me to any expectation of spontaneous fermentation. An avid reader of Fergus Drennan‘s blog, I remembered the story (in his July 2009 blog entry) that he’d been led by intuition and an experience of pure wild bullace (Prunus domestica subsp. institia) fermentation to try Darwin’s barberry (Berberis darwinii) as the catalyst for fermenting his entirely wild cherry wine (apologies for paraphrasing Mr Drennan without seeking his permission). In this supplement he’d had an inkling that the ‘bloom’ on the fruit of both types of berry could act as a type of ‘yeast’, though research tells me that the definition of this as ‘yeast’ is now, at least scientifically seen, obsolete.

Oregon grapes (Mahonia aquifolium), showing the so-called ‘bloom’

In my early teenage years, I used to read little other than Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. At a certain juncture (the novels all seem one enormous whole to me now), someone asks the witch Granny Weatherwax why she, a sage old woman, would observe the superstitions of – and therefore believe in – the gods, to which she replies (at least in my memory), that the gods exist whether we want them to or not; belief in them only encourages the buggers. This is not unlike an anecdote I later came across about the physicist Niels Bohr, who, holidaying at his country house with a similarly academic friend, was asked just how on earth, being a man of science and Reason (who would later find himself at the forefront of the development of quantum theory), could he explain the presence of – and therefore the subsumed belief in the efficacy of – a ‘lucky horseshoe’ suspended over the entrance to his summer residence? To which Bohr retorted with something like: ‘I don’t believe in it, but someone told me it works even if one doesn’t believe in it.’ This has more to do with exploding flasks of mahonia berries than first appears.

I was faced then on one side with a scientific impossibility, and on the other with a considerable dry-cleaning bill. Oregon grapes, bullace plums, Darwin’s barberries, do not ‘contain’ a yeast on their skins, as far as scientific definition allows, but after topping up the remaining 5l flask of juice with tapwater, I’ve got a wine that doesn’t really give a monkeys about ‘waxy coverings of the epithelial cells of fruit’, and therefore a wine-must that has been bubbling vigorously for two weeks solid with nothing more than the addition of some beet sugar and some warmth. After wracking some brains about it, I think it could be a case of fortuitous ‘discovery’: perhaps the ‘bloom’ in itself isn’t a kind of yeast, as the scientist have declared, but all the same, it is evident that several Berberidaceae and Rosaceae (that is, barberry family and rose family) plants appear to be particularly conducive to ‘spontaneous fermentation’ (see again Mr Drennan’s experiments linked above). The sheer amount of attention I have applied to achieving controlled fermentation – when compared to the absolute neglect under which my non-intentional mahonia (also a Berberidaceae) juice fermented – leads me to the provisional conclusion that some link between ‘yeast bloom’ and fermentation exists, a priori the classification of ‘yeast bloom’ as a non-yeast. In any case, the wine has ceased to ferment after two and a half weeks, is now primed and bottled, and seems in all respects healthy.

Oregon grape wine

Further otherly stuff: the first chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) of the year, arriving in mid July, an event ushered in by a succession of almost nightly rain-storms over Berlin for a week solid, epic thunder and lightning at about 3:00am, followed by high temperatures in the day. The priggish gold was thin on the ground, but a day’s leisurely wandering in the woods still produced about 150g of aureate mushroom.

The first chanterelles of my year

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