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Check out yucca soap

February 21, 2009|By MAUREEN GILMER / Scripps Howard News Service

On an Italian mountainside long ago, the elite of the Roman Empire offered animal sacrifices to the gods. When it rained, the byproducts of these burnt offerings flowed down the slope, mingling ash and fat together before they finally dumped into the Tiber River. It was along these riverbanks that frothy bubbles appeared, which indicated this combination had turned the runoff into soap.

Soap was used by indigenous cultures around the world that had no knowledge of the ash-and-tallow technology. Their soaps were derived directly from plants that contained naturally occurring saponins. These chemicals evolved to protect the plants from hungry wildlife and insects. Organic gardeners know that mildly soapy water sprayed on a plant kills insects, which is the first line of non-toxic defense. Similarly, soap probably doesn't taste good to gophers, either, so plants contain saponins to deter these and other root-eating rodents.

The most widely used soap plant in North America is the yucca, which is native to a huge range across the West and South. This is a truly lovely succulent plant composed of bundles of strap leaves that produce night-pollinated iridescent white-flower spires. Some species such as Spanish bayonette (Yucca aloifolia) and Spanish dagger (Yucca gloriosa) are native to the Southeast. They are found from Texas to Florida and north to Virginia. These make exceptional garden plants for humid climates, and were the very same type of plants used by the Seminoles and other tribes within these ranges as a source of soap.

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In the West, other yucca species are distributed far and wide, most often in arid high-desert or dry mountain ranges. All species contain saponins in the roots, particularly soap-tree yucca (Yucca elata), which was widely harvested by American Indians for use in washing body, clothing and hair. This and many other species that produce stout short trunks were the most valued because the Indians did not have to cut through the sharp-tipped foliage to reach the root crown. The trunk itself also contains saponins known as amole, which are still used today in rural Mexico.

Be aware that yucca may not produce the abundance of suds you'll find in commercial soaps, but it cleans nevertheless. The traditional way to harvest the soap is to dig up fresh roots and cut them into small pieces. Amole was also harvested this way by splitting the trunk and then cutting each segment into smaller pieces. These were then pounded or crushed to release the saponins from the surrounding fibers. The crushed material was mixed with a small amount of water to free the soap in solution.

One contemporary approach to using yucca soap is to grate fresh roots, as you would cheese, into very small bits. These are then packed into the toe of a pantyhose leg and tied off into a dense ball of fibers. When you drop this bundle into water, the saponins are released. Try floating these pantyhose balls in your bath and use as a natural body wash, or rub them onto the hair as shampoo. You can also throw this ball into the laundry for organic detergent.

Never harvest wild plants. It's best to grow your own yucca soap if you're interested in self-sufficiency and learning the old ways of doing things. There are tales of Indian women who preferred their wild soaps long after the manufactured ones became commonplace because they said yucca left their black hair far more lustrous and soft.

Whether or not that old Roman altar was in fact the birth of soap in the West may be hard to prove. However, there is no doubt that plant sources were in use for thousands of years before the rise of the Empire, the species differing with continent and range to clean up humanity all around the world.

o Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist. Her blog, the MoZone, offers great ideas for cash-strapped families to live more richly on less. Read the blog at www.MoPlants.com/blog. E-mail her at mogilmer@yahoo.com.

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