From Bay Nature magazineJan-Mar 2014

The Versatile Bulb: The Many Uses of Soaproot

by on January 13, 2014

Ramona Garibay gathers soaproot. Ramona Garibay, an East Bay Ohlone, gathers soaproot to make into brushes. (Photo by: Scott Braley, scottbraley.com)

Months into the Donner party’s winter ordeal, an Indian man traveling past the group’s snowbound Sierra encampment gave one of its members an unfamiliar food. Donner party survivor Patrick Breen wrote in his diary on February 28, 1847, “Solitary Indian passed by yesterday come from the lake had a heavy pack on his back gave me 5 or 6 roots resembling Onions in shape taste some like a sweet potatoe, all full of little tough fibres.” Those “roots” were dried bulbs of the soaproot plant and must have been a strange but welcome addition to the boiled oxhide, bones, and worse that sustained Breen and his family.

soaproot flower

In the spring, soaproot’s delicate flowers bloom late in the day. (Photo by: John Wall, http://jwallphoto.blogspot.com/)

Food seems an unusual use for a plant called soaproot. In fact, food is just one of many traditional California Indian uses for the plant, some apparently contradictory. Soap, food, glue, medicine, poison, and more — all from a hairy, fist-size underground bulb.

Even without the snow, the Donner party wouldn’t have found soaproot near their camp at Truckee (now Donner) Lake. The most common soaproot species, Chlorogalum pomeridianum, is widespread in California, but only below 5,000 feet. In grasslands, chaparral, and open woodlands, soaproot begins its annual cycle of growth with the fall or winter rains. That’s when the elongated bulb, layered like an onion and covered with coarse brown fibers, sends up several long, prostrate, wavy-edged leaves. Harvested in early spring and slow-roasted in a pit oven, those new leaves are sweet. So are the bulbs when they’re cooked the same way. But before cooking, the bulbs are bitter — and soapy.

Soap was likely the plant’s most important use for numerous California Indian tribes as well as Spanish settlers, who called it amole. Crushing the bulb’s white inner layers produces a thin juice that foams easily with water. Organic (carbon-containing) compounds called saponins are responsible for the sudsiness: They reduce the surface tension of water, allowing small, stable bubbles to form. Indians used soaproot to clean their bodies, clothing, and buckskin blankets, but valued it most as a shampoo.

Roasting the bulbs thickens the juice into a glue used for sealing baskets, attaching feathers to arrow shafts, and even forming the handles of brushes fashioned from the bulb’s outer fibers. Green sap from the leaves made tattoo ink, and juice from the bulb made a hide tanning treatment as well as medicines like antiseptics, laxatives, diuretics, and pain-relieving body rubs.

But one species’ panacea is another’s poison: The same plant that people used as food, for cleaning, and for healing is toxic to gill breathers, and California Indians sometimes exploited that property in fishing. While the men of a village constructed a netlike weir across a stream, the women mashed hundreds of soaproot bulbs and tossed them into the water. In a very short time, dozens of fish floated to the surface.

“The surface-active saponins stun the fish by interfering with uptake of oxygen through the animals’ gills,” explains organic chemist Margareta Séquin, author of The Chemistry of Plants: Perfumes, Pigments, and Poisons. But the effect is reversible, so the Indians had to gather the fish quickly before they revived. Because saponins pass through the human digestive system without causing harm, fish caught with soaproot are edible.

But fishing with poisons is now illegal and most non-Indians ignore native foods, so most of the attention soaproot gets these days is from insects that visit its flowers. From late spring into summer, numerous small white blossoms open late in the day on tall, branching stalks so slender the flowers look like low-hanging stars in the fading light. Each individual flower is ephemeral, opening a few hours before sunset and fading before dawn.

Soaproot flowers are white and night-blooming, traits that, along with sweet fragrance, often identify moth-pollinated flowers. But contrary to popular assumption, soaproot flowers have no discernible scent. And while moths (as well as honeybees, hummingbirds, and wasps) occasionally visit them, soaproot flowers are primarily pollinated by large native carpenter bees and bumblebees.

By late summer, dozens of seeds drop around the mother plant, some of which will take root and eventually form a sizable colony. A few weeks later, the leaves and flower stalks wither and blow away, and soon the only aboveground sign of the plant is a short tuft of brown fibers marking the location of its bitter, soapy, toxic, gluey, medicinal, and very sweet bulb.

See more articles in: Plants and Fungi

5 comments:

Hemp hurrah | ieatsow.com on January 14th, 2014 at 11:05 pm

[…] The Versatile Bulb: The Many Uses of Soaproot Food seems an unusual use for a plant called soaproot. In fact, food is just one of many traditional California Indian uses for the plant, some apparently contradictory. Soap, food, glue, medicine, poison, and more — all from a hairy, fist-size … Read more on Bay Nature […]

linda vartanian on May 3rd, 2014 at 6:41 pm

are these plants toxic to dogs? i have lots and lots of them all over my property and a young dog who sometimes chews on plants!!

Chuck Kritzon on December 31st, 2014 at 11:46 pm

Soaproot is an amazing California perennial that thrives in many conditions. I have gathered soaproot from a falling hillside only 100 yards from the ocean to the edge of a lake with the bulb growing in a barren rock landscape to bulbs growing at a depth of over a foot in sandy soil.

It is an amazing survivor. I have gathered hundreds of these unique plants over the last 20 years for teaching the making of soaproot brushes and using the course fibers for fire making.
This plant sprouts from the ground with the first moister of the season and sends out long wavy iris looking leaves from its basal center creating a 1 foot+ wide funnel to gather the winter rains to feed its main root system.

The coarse outer fibers of the bulb are the remnants of those very same rain-collecting leaves from sprouting from the center of the young plant. The coarse outer fibers are used to make make many different utilitarian brushes with the brush handles made from the roasted of steamed inner bulb scraped from the inner leaves and applied in multiple layers over the bound fibers to create a brush.

Chuck Kritzon on January 1st, 2015 at 12:00 am

The young leafy shoots can be gathered as a fresh spring vegetable and eaten raw. The leaved were routinely used to wrap acorn mush for baking in coals to make acorn bread. The juice for the green leaves was also used as a tattoo ink.
The flower stalks can grow in optimal conditions to over 12 feet in height but average 4 to 6 feet in height.

The reason for the flower stalks height is to avoid competing with native grasses that quickly cover the basal leaves and allow the flowering stalks to be un-interupted in their ability to draw insects to it’s late evening flowering.

I have counted a seasons worth of flowers on an average soaproot plant in my backyard. By the end of the season I had counted over 1800 flowers that had been open for only one evening. But from the vigor of the bees and flies and other insects pollinating these flower I have also gathered many thousands of soaproot seeds at the end of summer.

Chlorogalum is a wonderful California indigenous plant that deserves our attention and praise. It thrives almost everywhere and has a multitude of uses for past cultures and for now.

Marie on June 23rd, 2015 at 3:17 pm

Is there any way I could get some of the seeds of the soap root plant or the roots. I am very much interested in making my own shampoo and facial scrubs using all natural ingredients. Do you know where I could buy either the seeds or bulbs and do you know how much they might cost?
Thank you for your time.

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