Soaproot: A Multi-use Marvel (Chlorogalum pomeridianum)
It’s a cold and rainy November afternoon and winter is tugging at my too-thin flannel shirt. Time to brew some Yerba Buena tea, crank up the laptop and learn something new! The result is this month’s profile, which is about soaproot, a plant that boasts an interesting historical anecdote.
One Small Bright Spot in the Ill-fated Donner Party
During 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.” It turns out those “roots” were dried bulbs of the soaproot plant which must have been a strange but welcome addition to the boiled oxhide, bones, and worse that sustained Breen and his family.
Characteristics, Habitat, and Range
Soaproot (Chlorogalum pomeridianum) called “wavyleaf soap plant,” “soaproot,” or “amole,” is a low-growing plant of California and Oregon. The generic name Chlorogalum means “green milk,” which refers to the green juice exuded by a broken leaf. The term pomeridianum comes from post meridiem, or “past mid-day,” the Latin phrase that gave rise to the abbreviation “p.m.”The term refers to the flowers, which open late in the day.
Soaproot is a member of the Agavaceae (Agave) family but more closely resembles a lily. It has light green wavy-edged leaves one to two feet long. The flowers are typically white but have a noticeable mid-vein which can be purple or green in color. The bulb is brown and fibrous, just a little larger than a person’s fist, with a white heart. It is found in most of California from the coasts to the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and in the Klamath Mountains in southwestern Oregon, but not in either state's desert regions. Soaproot grows on rock bluffs, grasslands, chaparral, and in open woodlands. The flowers bloom from May through August.
Uses: For One, Lather Up!
Native Americans as well as the early Spanish-Californians found many uses for the bulb or root - both fresh and cooked: When the coating is removed and the bulb is crushed and rubbed on hands or clothes in water, it creates a fine lather for washing body and garments. The bulb contains chlorogenin and amolonin (saponins), which can be sliced, crushed, and mixed with water to create an antifungal soap or shampoo.
The crushed bulb can be rubbed on the body to relieve rheumatic pains and cramps, and perhaps as a salve for poison oak rashes. Native Americans also used the crushed bulbs for fishing: the bulbs were thrown into pools or dammed streams and their juices in the water stunned the fish, causing them to float to the surface where they could be picked out by net (without poisoning the fish).
The bulbs were also cooked by slow roasting in ground-pits for as source of starch. (CAUTION Eating the bulb raw is not advised because the same chemicals that make it a good soap and fish poison - saponins - are present in the raw bulb.) The cooked bulbs also contain fiber that can be made into small brushes. The thick juice obtained from the cooking was used as a glue to attach feathers to arrow shafts.
Use caution with any plants you are not familiar with. Collection of any material from public lands in the City is prohibited. Instead, become familiar with the properties of native plants such as soaproot, and grow them in your own garden!
Care and Propagation
The bulb is easy to grow either in full sun or part shade. It requires little watering, and can tolerate clay, loam, and sandy soils. Once established, it requires very little care. Soaproot can be used as a filler between small trees or chaparral shrubs, or in grasslands, meadows or rock gardens, along with native grasses. Other companion plants include Mariposa Lily (Calochortus sp.), Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum), succulents such as Dudleya sp., and various cactus species. They are great for butterfly gardens, are deer resistant, and can tolerate cold to 5 degrees. The flowers usually attract native bees and hoverflies.
Find soaproot and many other plants at the Sutro Native Plant Nursery! Volunteers are welcome at the nursery on Wednesdays from 9:30am-12:30pm. Come to visit, purchase plants, or volunteer. We’d love to have you! See our nursery page for more information.
1) Rosenthal, S. (2014). The Versatile Bulb: The Many Uses of Soaproot. From: https://baynature.org/article/versatile-bulb-many-uses-soaproot/
2) Soap Plant (Chlorogalum pomeradianum). Forest Jay Gauna. USDA Forest Service; https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/chlorogalum_pomeridianum.shtml
3) Chlorogalum pomeradianum. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chlorogalum_pomeridianum
4) Chlorogalum pomeridianum (soap plant, soap root). Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. http://www.parksconservancy.org/conservation/plants-animals/native-plant-information/soap-plant.html?referrer=https://search.yahoo.com/
5) Chlorogalum pomeridianum; The Watershed Nursery; http://www.watershednursery.com/nursery/plant-finder/chlorogalum-pomeridianum/