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Soaproot (Chlorogalum pomeridianum)

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.

Soaproot loves to colonize

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.

…in fact, they love colonizing so much that the storm-damaged leaves crash together sculpturally

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.

This soaproot is almost at full height; the plants in the pot aren’t even up yet

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.

In the center of the rosette, the stalk is just beginning

 

{ 31 comments… add one }

  • catmint March 24, 2011, 2:47 am

    Dear Pomona, I had never heard of soaproot or poison oak, and enjoyed this fascinating post. The image of you camping out in some beautiful place and digging two hours each day makes me smile. I wish you healthy wishes, catmint

  • Barbee' March 24, 2011, 8:54 am

    I can’t imagine digging with a stick so much, what tenacity! Okay, that plant is a new one for me. Interesting.

  • Sue Langley March 26, 2011, 6:05 pm

    Nice post and the first I’ve seen on this CA native. The first time I saw it was when the neighbors, very knowlegable, pointed it out.

    The next time was when our septic system was dug by a back hoe and happened to show a cross section of earth layers with the root showing imbedded in the ‘dirt wall’ I was amazed to see how far down they go.

    I like the flowers, too, hard to photograph bacause they are so delicate and airy.

  • James March 27, 2011, 8:46 am

    I enjoy learning about all the uses that our natives have been used for. I wonder if I’d be willing to dig up an attractive garden plant next time I have an encounter with poison oak, however. Dunno…does that say that I’m disconnected from what nature can provide us if I’m so fixated only on how a plant looks?

  • Sue Langley March 27, 2011, 11:54 am

    Oh, forgot to mention that if I cover my exposed face, arms, wrists ankles with any oil based lotion before going out, it prevents poison oak oil from sticking to my skin. I’m very allergic, but since we have to work around it I looked into all the preventions. Accidental exposure is different problem.
    Did you try the root on your poison oak?

  • Pomona Belvedere April 5, 2011, 11:54 am

    Very good tips on the p.o., Sue. The method I use now is to cover up severely when I know I’ll be doing things like cutting it. Afterwards I wash with baking soda, made into a paste, very very thoroughly. Then I do it again (baking soda cuts oils on our bodies as well as in our household cleaning, a neighbor told me. Then I wash with Tecnu extreme, whose main ingredient is the beneficent sticky grindelia, also a native – maybe I should do a poison oak series! You can see I have a lot of respect for p.o. The soaproot was only sort of kind of effective.

    James, while using plants is my delight, I’m in no position to be criticizing someone who is impractical in the cause of aesthetics!

    Barbee, I’m impressed if I’ve found a plant new to you – even if I had to go to the other end of the country to do it.

    Catmint, lovely to hear from you and thanks for the good wishes.

  • Pomona Belvedere April 5, 2011, 11:57 am

    P.S. I love the idea of seeing a cross-section of this plant — it’s an easier way to see how deep they go, and the visual effect would be pleasing.

  • Gabrielle@flowerbulbcrazy April 8, 2011, 12:48 pm

    I did not know about this plant. Thanks! glad to learn about more plants! too bad it doesnt help more with the poison oak!

  • Natalie June 5, 2011, 3:36 pm

    As a Native of the Wintu tribe and to expand on the uses of soap root. It was also used for fishing by women and other non-hunters. After gathering a copious amount, it is pounded into a lather. Once that is achieved, the entire batch is tossed in a small pool on the river. It stuns the fish and they float to the surface for “easy” harvesting.

  • Katie July 23, 2011, 10:54 pm

    I’d love to see pictures of your plants in bloom.

  • Laura January 11, 2012, 4:15 pm

    Can you eat it? And do you know of any recipes?

  • Julie January 12, 2012, 4:49 pm

    I have a recipe but sorry I will post it later!!!

  • Julie January 23, 2012, 3:37 pm

    Soap root Recipe.

    Prepare:

    1. Choose young and tender soap roots.
    2. Peel the outer husk till you reach the white meaty part.
    3. Snip stems off.
    4. Wash thoroughly.

    Cook:

    1. You can either boil or bake them, but in our experience, boiling is better.

    To boil:

    1. Set a boiling pot of water on the stove, drop soap root shoots in.
    2. Boil for 45 minutes – to an hour.

    To bake:

    1. Wrap in foil.
    2. Set in baking pan.
    3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
    4. Bake for an hour and 10 minutes.

    Scraping:

    1. Peel down sides of root.
    2. With a butter knife, scrape the meat off the inner side of peel.

    Mixing:

    1. In a bowl, mix thyme, nutmeg, baking powder, cornstarch, flour.
    2. Bake at 400 for 20 min.

    Warning!

    Has very strong flavor. Sprinkle brown sugar on top before baking.

  • Julie April 12, 2012, 8:57 pm

    Oops, sorry, forgot to put the measurements.

    5 Tspns Thyme
    5 tspns nutmeg
    5 tbspns baking powder
    5 tspns cornstarch
    5 tspns flour
    5 cups sugar

    Sorry and thanks.

  • catniss May 15, 2012, 2:58 pm

    wow what a great recipe!! thanks soo much!!!

  • Susan July 9, 2012, 7:41 pm

    I have four soap-root plants doing quite well in full sun near the Northern California coast. One that bloomed last year did not bloom this year. One is still young so not blooming yet. Do they bloom every year once they get going. What affects the bloom?

  • Haxie September 3, 2012, 3:13 pm

    I am very interested in Native American ethnobotany, especially in the Kern County area where I live. I would love to get some starts or seeds or whatever is possible, to grow soaproot in my yard–Chlorogalum pomeridianum, the variety with the brown fibers around the bulb–I have a gorgeous brush made from this plant, made by a Kawaiisu native, and I want to grow some to make my own brushes. Please contact me if you have a source of plants or seeds. Thank you.

  • Julie January 13, 2013, 8:02 pm

    please disregard the recipe unless you are a adventurous eater

  • Charmaine December 27, 2013, 3:58 pm

    Okay so I’ve just experienced for the very first time an allergic reaction to Poison Oak. And 2 weeks later new patches are still showing up and old areas healing…….I’m itchy and borderline insane. This is frustrating because I never had an allergy to Poison Oak before. So it’s true that an allergy can show up at any time.
    About twenty years ago, I was just a kid, a friend showed me a plant that grew and got rid of poison oak. I’ve moved since then and the plant doesn’t grow in the location that I live now. So for Christmas I went to my home town and hiked to the location where my friend had showed me the plant. And there it was, and there was too many to even count.
    It’s hairy, it’s gooey being slimy at first and stings tremendously when applied to affected area then drying to sticky glue and dries as if it were glue. It’s deep in the soil and can’t be pulled but can be dug up.
    That was yesterday. Today poison oak is history. It’s almost as if it pulls the oils out. I feel that it helped my poison oak reaction tremendously.
    I removed the hairs and then smashed it up while adding some warm water. Then applied to affected areas. It lathered nicely. Then washed off. Helps this helps others.

  • Steven Edholm March 5, 2015, 4:41 am

    Soaproot is a very interesting and useful plant. I’m not sure I would say it “likes” shade, but it’s pretty tolerant. I find that it seems happiest in full sun, but is often shaded out during plant successions. I find it often in heavy shade slowly dying out year by year, losing the battle for light.

    Digging with a stick is not so bad if you pick the right place. That is one reason people used to be more mobile. Soaproot especially, seems to hang on for dear live with its coarse fibers. It’s usually easiest to dig it out of a hillside or bank where the soil is looser, a lesson I learned a long time ago. There are lots of places where useful and edible roots grow, but much fewer where they are easy to dig out!

    Soaproot is toxic raw. It can also cause itching and even rashes in some people when applied externally. If eaten, it should be cooked, and probably cooked very well. I’ve never found it very appealing, but I’m not sure I’ve ever cooked it for a very long time, which I would guess is the way to do it… in a roasting pit in the earth. Regardless, if anyone experiments with it, cook it well. I know of a group of kids and adults that ate it under roasted and experienced symptoms.

    Soaproot is an old acquaintance of mine. There is so much to say about it that I’m tempted to keep writing! Maybe I’ll finish that soaproot article I’ve had sitting around half finished for years…

  • barbara deutsch June 9, 2015, 11:36 pm

    there are this year a great multitude of soaproot flowers in bloom a little
    above the drying grasses on the serpentine slopes of Ring Mt. (Marin county, central California), with richly blue brodiaeas almost as numerous below them: one among those of us who have been admiring the flowers, noticed on a recent very hot afternoon few of the soaproot blossoms opening. Such a sensitivity to higher temperatures is new in our experience, so we’re curious if others have made similar or related observations ?

  • Susan Head June 10, 2015, 10:11 am

    Soaproot flowers open in the late afternoon or evening. Mine are doing very well this year in spite of little water and warmer temps.

  • Steven Edholm June 10, 2015, 10:15 am

    Yes, soaproot is a one night only flower. They open late like Susan says. By morning they twist closed into a tight prudish bun and the flower fills with a sticky exudate, no doubt to protect it from depredation by insects.

  • Donna August 29, 2015, 7:59 pm

    This is talked about, at least for soap, in the book Plains of Passages, the one by Jean Auel

  • Donna August 29, 2015, 8:00 pm

    *

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  • Two Crows February 8, 2016, 11:57 am

    Hi– thanks for sharing the info– it is a wonderful plant. A note of clarification– there is not need to dig the root. The bulb has the same white, soapy liquid needed for soap and digging the root actually kills the plant.

    Here is a description of how it was traditionally harvested:

    …leave the lower part of the root to resprout, place any seeds from the dried stalk into the hole, and re-cover it with dirt and litter. That’s how the Indians assured sustainable harvest (Anderson 2005). In fact, such gathering techniques often enhanced the growth of the bulb populations, since they co-evolved with disturbance from humans, rodents, pigs, and other consumers, they reproduce vegetatively, so the tilling and breaking up of the root, and spreading seed all act to make the population expand in number and size (Anderson 2005).

  • Joe June 28, 2016, 8:16 pm

    Is this article about you or soap root? Little to no educational value… Poor read… Hippy mumbo jumbo

  • Sophie July 6, 2016, 4:35 am

    I do not understand using a stick when shovels are available, care to elaborate?

  • Lisa April 30, 2017, 8:55 pm

    I myself get poison oak bad remember three leaves are poison wherever there’s a natural poison within walking distance there is a natural cure we have the cures. For all god given illnesses and any disease we have natural cures vitamins herbs minerals man made or caused by man we have prescription drugs that have five side effects Indian soap root can be found in walking distance from poison oak if you use it right away before scratching and blistering it it’ll rinse off the poison oak we haves lost the cures just the knowledge which is powerful especially when its free

  • Lisa April 30, 2017, 8:58 pm

    Up above

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