Bouncingbet - The Soap Weed


Known for thousands of years to produce a cleansing soaplike lather when crushed in water, bouncing-bet (Saponaria off cinalis L. #3 SAWOF) is as pretty as its name. Though it has followed man around the world, it has always been an invited guest-until the 1900s, when our changing viewpoint redefined this millennial source of soap, fragrance, and beauty as a weed.


Bouncingbet's scientific name has remained un-changed since Linnaeus presented it in Species Plan-tarum in 1753. The genus name combines sapo or saponis, which is Latin for "soap" (14) (and very likely the ancestor of our English word), with -aria, a Latin suffix meaning "like" or "similar to" (8). Offcina, initially Latin for "office," became opificina meaning "store-room" and later "pharmacy," where medical plants were stored and dispensed; -alis is a Latin suffix meaning "pertaining to" (14). The species name is commonly associated with plants having medicinal uses (14). Around the first century A.D., Mediterranean people called S. off cinalis struthium or strouthion ["little bird" (8)] or struthiocamelus [possibly "little bird on the ground" (8)]; others called it cerdon or chamaerrhytos. One Greek popular name, catharsis, meant (and still means) "a cleanser or purifier" (8), perhaps referring to both the soapy uses of the plant and to its purgative effects when used medicinally. The Magi called it chalyriton, Egyptians called it oeno, and Africans syris (2). Romans called it radix ("root") or herba lanaria ["wool herb" (8) - for even 2000 years ago, clothiers used a decoction of Saponaria to clean wool before weaving it into cloth] (2).

The name "bouncing bet" arose in England in Elizabethan times, when the plant had become widely used and even more widely naturalized (6). Working-class Britons used it to scrub their crude wood and pewter dishes and for their laundry. "The inflated calyx and scalloped petals of the flower suggested the rear view of a laundress, her numerous petticoats pinned up, and the wide ruff at her neck bobbing about as she scrubbed the clothes. . . " (6). It seems worth speculating that the hypothetical washerwoman was named "Bet" in honor of Queen Elizabeth; however, it might be ungracious to suggest any connection among the Queen, the flower, and the jiggling rump of a laundress. Common names include soapwort, latherwort (6), soaproot (13), and scourwort (11) in reference to the plant's common use as a soap. It became fuller's herb (6) in reference to its use in washing woven wool cloth; this not only cleaned the cloth but caused it to shrink - pulling the strands tight or "full." Its appellation of sheepweed (1) also may stem from this use. As a showy member of the Caryophyllaceae, or pink family, it has been called hedge pink or old maid's pink (1). 

Reputed medicinal qualities, particularly for skin ailments, earned it the name bruisewort (1). And for its famed spicy fragrance, which perfumed the streets of old England, it was dubbed London pride (6), wild sweet William, or sweet Betty (11). Incidentally, "wort" is the Anglicized version of an old North European word for any plant or herb; it has roots in the Anglo-Saxon wyrt, the Old Norse urt, and the Old High German wurz (3). It may even be related to ancient Greek and Roman words for "root" (12). The word is obsolete by itself (12), but it survives as a suffix in many plant common names. The prefix usually describes something a plant resembles (spiderwort), cures (liverwort), or provides (soapwort) (3).


Though the cleansing applications of bouncingbet have given it many names and helped it to colonize continent after continent, the weed reputedly has other benefits. The Greek herbalist Dioscorides described bouncingbet in the first century, assigning it a myriad of medicinal properties (2). Herbalists from the first through the 19th centuries ascribed to bouncingbet, along with apparently innumerable other weeds, the power to cure liver ailments (10), coughs, and kidney stones (2). In medieval times, herbalists prescribed bouncingbet for skin diseases, including leprosy, and general itching. It was used as a cure for syphilis and gonorrhea (10). The cylindrical taproots were dug up, cleaned, and dried; and, as late as the 1940s, these were sold for 5 to 10 cents a pound for medicine (5). Liquid extracts of the roots and leaves are available for a purgative and for treatment of scrofula and other skin diseases (10).


The story of bouncingbet's colonization of new countries closely parallels its use as a detergent and medicine. Though used in Europe probably before re-corded history, it did not arrive in England until the Middle Ages, when monks brought it over from France and Germany (6). It caught on with the common people at once. And when the Industrial Revolution enabled large-scale commercial manufacture of cloth, textile magnates cultivated fields of the "weed" as an inexpensive detergent, thus granting it a permanent home (6). Like many of our weeds, bouncingbet was brought over from Europe as part of the pioneers' garden sup-plies, probably arriving even with the first settlers (6). Once again, its cultivation boomed in the early days of the American textiles industry (6), and it thrived in the new country even when its usefulness was past. As land was cleared for homes and farms, and roads, canals, and railroads pushed into the interior, bouncing-bet colonized new ground (often with the aid of thrifty settlers fond of clean laundry) (6).


Now bouncingbet can be found in waste areas throughout North America. Only Australia, Canada, and Spain report it as a problem weed; though it is present in other countries, it apparently is controlled (7). In 1945, Fogg (4) wrote, "Bouncing Bet is so thoroughly at home along railroad embankments and roadsides that one is impelled to wonder where the plant grew before present-day methods of transportation were developed." Bet's good side has not been entirely forgotten. "In homes and museums, ex tracts are still employed for cleaning wall hangings and tapestries... and for producing a `head' on beers" (10). This is considered one of the most beautiful "` weeds. In the past century bouncingbet often appeared in English gardens, and at least one variety is still available (6). "Were it not that its strong perennial root-stocks are insatiable in their quest for space the species might have gained popularity as a garden plant" (4).


Bouncingbet is a deep-rooted perennial which grows 30 to 60 cm (1 to 2 feet) tall. Its leaves are paired, lance-shaped, and without petioles. It reproduces by seeds or rootstocks. It produces an abundant froth of complex, fragrant, pale rose-colored flowers in late summer or early fall. The flowers are tube shaped at the base, with 5 petals; double flowers are fairly common, and the plant has been bred occasionally for double flowers for gardens. Bouncingbet is a member of the pink family (Cary-ophyllaceae), along with chickweed and cockles. Haughton (6) wrote that the word "pink" originally referred to the flowers of this family - including Bet's - because they had scalloped or `pinked' petals. The characteristic pale rose of the flowers came to be called pink as well. Bouncingbet is considered "somewhat poisonous" (11). The poisonous ingredient is the saponin glucoside - the same chemical which forms a soapy emulsion when the plant is crushed in water and which in moderation is the purgative beloved of herbalists. Sheep will die within 4 h after eating plants equal to 3% of their body weight; this is unlikely, however, as the plant is distasteful to animals (9).


1. Britton, N. L., and A. Brown. 1898. An Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.

2. Dioscorides. 1933. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides. R. T. Gunther, ed. Hafner Publ. Co., Inc., New York.

3. Durant, M. 1976. Who Named the Daisy? Who Named the Rose? Dodd, Mead & Company, New York.

4. Fogg, J. M., Jr. 1945. Weeds of Lawn and Garden. Univ. Penn. Press, Philadelphia.

5. Georgia, A. E. 1942. A Manual of Weeds. The Macmillan Company, New York

6. Haughton, C. S. 1978. Green Immigrants. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., New York.

7. Holm, L. G., J. V. Pancho, J. P. Herberger, and D. L. Plucknett. 1979. A Geographical Atlas of World Weeds. John Wiley & Sons, New York.

8. Jaeger, E. C. 1944. A Source-book of Biological Names and Terms (2nd Ed.). Charles E. Thomas, Springfield, IL.

9. Kingsbury, J. M. 1964. Poisonous Plants of the United States and Canada. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

10. LeStrange, R. 1977. A History of Herbal Plants. Angus & Robertson, London.

11. Muenscher, W. C. 1935. Weeds. Macmillan Publ. Co. Inc., New York.

12. Simpson, J. A., and E.S.C. Weiner. 1989. The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

13. Uphof, J.C.T. 1968. Dictionary of Economic Plants (2nd Ed.). Stechert- Hafner Service Agency, Inc., New York.

14. Zimdahl, R. L. 1989. Weeds and Words. Iowa State Univ. Press, Ames.