Project: Replace Your Soap with Soapy Plants


The following project is from When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency by Matthew Stein.

There is something inherently satisfying about making soap. Maybe it relates to the 4,500+ year history of human soap making; maybe it simply reflects a desire to keep the jungle at bay and put our stamp on our personal environment. For pioneer women, soap making was an annual event, often lasting for days while lye was leached from wood ashes saved from the winter fires and then cooked with fat as the spring thaw began.
—Dr. Robert S. McDaniel, Essentially Soap

Soaps and detergents are both known as surfactants. Surfactants reduce the surface tension of water, causing the water to fully wet both the object to be cleaned and the debris, encouraging the debris to wash away. According to Susan Miller Cavitch, author of The Soapmaker’s Companion, soap molecules also have a distinct head and tail, one end having an attraction to water and the other end having an attraction to dirt. This property helps soap molecules to connect the dirt to the water, further enabling the water to wash away the dirt.

Soapy Plants

There are a number of plants that can be used as a substitute for soap without any chemical processing. These plants contain naturally occurring soap-like substances, called saponins. Bouncing bet (also called soapwort), clematis, and yucca are three common North American plants with significant saponin content. It has been said that Native Americans bathed regularly and were often appalled by the smell of white pioneer men. To use any of these plants for soap, chop up the appropriate part of the plant and rub it between your hands with some water or dry it for future use. Before trying a full dose on your body, test for allergic reactions by rubbing a bit onto the inside of your wrist and waiting one day to make sure there is no adverse reaction. Because saponins are somewhat poisonous, and Native Americans have used them to paralyze fish, you do not want to eat these plants, except perhaps for the edible fruits and flowers of the yucca family (Brill 1994, 134).


Do not use bouncing bet on your face, because it is very irritating to the eyes. Collect bouncing bet in the late summer to fall. Found nationwide, it is easiest to identify by its pretty white or pink flowers with five petals. You can use the entire plant (Blankenship and Blankenship 1996,142).

Figure 14-1. Bouncing bet. Illustration courtesy of Earth Knack: Stone Age Skills for the 21st Century by Bart and Robin Blankenship (Gibbs Smith, 1996).


Clematis is a common climbing vine with white or purple flowers, and is often found dominating the tops of trees. Collect the leaves and flowers for use as soap (Blankenship and Blankenship 1996,142).

Figure 14-2. Clematis. Illustration courtesy of Earth Knack: Stone Age Skills for the 21st Century by Bart and Robin Blankenship (Gibbs Smith, 1996).


These traditional desert-dwelling plants also contain saponins. The root contains the most saponins, but use of the root kills the plant, so please don’t use this plant frivolously. If you are pounding and soaking the leaves for fiber to make cordage, the soaking water will contain sufficient saponins for bathing (Blankenship and Blankenship 1996,143).

Figure 14-3. Yucca. Illustration courtesy of Earth Knack: Stone Age Skills for the 21st Century by Bart and Robin Blankenship (Gibbs Smith, 1996).

Share This:

Read The Book

When Technology Fails

A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency, 2nd Edition


Recent Articles

Gathering Honey from a Weed: The Life of Patience Gray

Iconoclastic food writer, forager, and force of nature Patience Gray always found the good in the simple.
 In Fasting and Feasting, Gray’s biographer Adam Federman discovers that her life was never simple. “Struck by Patience Gray’s mind, her vision and her prose, Federman went in search of her past. . . . He’s done the…

Read More

RECIPE: Fermented Honeysuckle Cordial

Oh, honeysuckle how we love thee. Your sweet scent evokes memories of days gone by: afternoons spent lounging in the warmth of the spring sunshine, summer nights under the stars, the list goes on. If only there was a way to capture your essence so we can enjoy you more than just in passing… But…

Read More

DIY Weekend: Build a Wood-Fired Oven at Home

Do you have a love affair with wood-fired pizza? Can’t resist a fresh from the oven loaf of bread? Are always looking for another DIY project? If you said yes, then one’s for you! Richard Miscovich, bread expert and wood-fired oven builder, offers a few useful tips and general masonry guidelines to help you get…

Read More

Hip Hip, Hooray! It’s National Book Lovers Day!

 If you’re anything like us, this might be one of your favorite days of the year. To help you celebrate as only a book-lover can (with a stack of tomes in your favorite reading nook), we’ve rounded up a few Chelsea Green faves – from bestsellers to staff favorites to brand new, just hit the…

Read More

Recipe: Summer Herb Flower Vinegar

Olivia’s mom, Lola, is famous for her potato salad that seems so simple, but has a certain je ne sais quoi—the secret ingredient: chive-flower-infused vinegar. She recalls, “As a child I was enchanted by the apothecary bottles lined up on our kitchen shelves, stuffed with purple pompoms—I just knew there was magic happening inside.” By…

Read More