Despite the snow, hail, and rain so copious it forms little sheets and streams of water in the yard, there’s one native plant that’s coming up, unstoppable. Soaproot.
Soaproot was one of the first plants I got to know, many years ago, when I moved to this area. I was camping out by the river, near what turned out to be a seasonal stream, and there was a good colony of soaproot there.
Later on, I found out that soaproot really likes moist soil, and seems to prefer dirt so wet it’s underwater part of the year. But I’ve also seen it on hilltops near no obvious source of water whatever. It might have been a high-water-table indicator: there were madrone trees all around them (soaproot likes shade), and although madrones will take drought, they love water. The trouble is, I know the well on that property was a very piddly one. Did they just drill in the wrong place? Or are madrones and soaproot less thirsty than I thought? Just another mystery.
Soaproot, as you might have guessed by the name, has a bulbous root that can be used as soap; it lathers when you mix it with water.
Trouble is, that root is about 2 feet down, and the heavy clay soil makes tough digging. Camped out there by the river, I decided to dig up my soaproot in the original style: I used a stick.
That method took me two days and a good share of my patience. You can’t pull the root up; the stem breaks off, as I repeatedly found. So, I kept digging.
I dug only a couple of hours a day. Digging through clay with a stick is a little like serving up sugar with a needle: if you’re diligent, it works, but it’s slow. Probably the Maidu of the area had more patience than I. And maybe better digging skills.
When I did get down to the hairy, bulbous root (the outside has fibrous covering) I found it difficult to deal with. It has many layers, like an onion, only more slippery.
The reason I was digging up soaproot was that I had heard it was a remedy for poison oak, and which I had a case of. (Poison oak is not at all picky about where it grows: shade, sun; wet, dry: it’s all good.) I did manage to get the root to lather, and it did help with the itching, but I’m forced to say that Fels-Naptha laundry soap did a better job, and was less sticky. (This was before I heard about the torture by testing animals get, or at least got, at the Fels-Naptha labs. I stopped buying their soap. It seems to me that there are a lot better and more interesting ways to test soap.)
I did not use the hairy outer covering of the soaproot as a brush, or try roasting and eating the bulb, as Indians who live in soaproot’s range used to do. I’ve eaten a lot of bitter, acrid, and acidic wild foods (at least once), but the idea of roasting one of those slippery, soapy roots is not appealing. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they’re like onions, and get sweet when you roast them.
Although I am unlikely to dig up any soaproot with a stick this year, I enjoy its cheerful, persistent, burgeoning presence, and look forward to the stems of delicate white flowers– sometimes only a couple of feet tall, sometimes towering to four feet, glinting white in the shade.