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December 9, 2016 Back to Picks >

We live in an age where words like “natural,” “earth friendly,” and “bio-degradable” are much sought after descriptions for cleaning solutions. If this is what you�re looking for, I’m happy to report that the herb world has just the thing – soapwort. It will grow easily in most gardens and is a safe cleaning agent for all fabrics.

Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) is a spreading perennial herb. When planted in full sun it will grow upright to about two feet. If set in shade, it tends to sprawl. The flowers appear in late summer and have five white to pink petals vaguely resembling ornamental pinks (to which soapwort is related) and grow in loose clusters.

Soapwort’s spreading habits may be a problem in a formal garden but it’s a bonus in some hard-to-garden areas. It will grow happily in thin, rocky soil. Its spreading habits make soapwort a good choice for slopes. Just be sure you’ll want it growing there for many years as soapwort can be difficult to remove completely.

Soapwort is rich in saponins, a soapy substance. The leaves or roots of crushed soapwort will produce suds when shaken vigorously in warm water. Before commercial soap was available this herb provided a mild home-made soap. The suds are so mild that soapwort is used by museums for cleaning and restoring fabrics. The soapy nature of this herb also makes it useful in the garden as an insecticidal soap. Find a spot where it can spread out and it will grow happily in your green garden.