Sunday, March 17, 2013

Soapwort: Saponaria officinalis

 Saponaria officinalis 'Rosea Plena', Soapwort

Soapwort is so named because the leaves and roots of the plants contain saponins or soap and it has been used since ancient times for this purpose.  It was brought to Britain by the Romans and taken to the Americas by the Pilgrim Fathers and probably arrived in Australia with the First Fleet. Sometimes it is given the folk name of 'Bouncing Bet' alluding to its habit of bouncing from one place to another via underground roots and appearing far from where it was originally planted. Thus modern garden writers give caution as to planting it freely least it overtake a complete garden. Surprisingly, given its love of moist rich soil or of being pond-side, it belongs to the carnation/dianthus/sweet william family Caryophyllaceae, plants which are normally associated with limey dry soil and Mediterranean conditions. The visual similarity is in the jointed stems and soft sugary fragrance of the flowers.
The double flowering form, pictured above, is said to be less vigorous than the single variety.This one I obtained from a specialist nursery last year during Bowral Tulip Time and it is flowering for the first time, though is somewhat lax in habit.
Years ago I grew the single flowered variety which I got from Dragonfly Aquatics, the nursery of Australian water gardening expert Nick Romanowski who praised the single flowered 'wild type' as being more appealing in his book Water Garden Plants and Animals (UNSW Press).
In the eyes of herb enthusiasts Soapwort will be forever associated with the work of Lady Margaret Meade-Fetherstonhaugh (1888-1977) who used it to restore delicate fabric and brocades in the family home of Uppark (now a National Trust property), in Sussex which her husband had inherited in 1930. With curtains dating from 1746 and in need of restoration she collaborated with herbalist Hilda Leyel (1880-1957) to form a natural cleaning product based on the leaves and roots of the plant. Achieving great success she remarked 'It is a miracle process which not only cleans but heals the material by feeding and strengthening the threads of the textile'

 Uppark in Sussex, as pictured in the early 18th C by Jan Kipp, where the revival of interest in the use of the herb Saponaria was carried out by Lady Meade-Fetherstonhaugh who went on to become President of the Society of Herbalists following the death of Hilda Leyel.

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