Western Soapberry Tree – Natural Laundry Detergent?

by Tammy Taylor

You’ll remember a few weeks ago I was delighted to find a very beneficial tree at an old abandoned homestead sight on property we had recently obtained.  It was identified as a Jujube Tree and I picked much of the fruit from those trees and dehydrated them for use in my granola.  They are absolutely delicious.  But recently RancherMan & I were checking on the cows in that remote pasture & I happened to look up and see what looked like the golden berries of a Soapberry Tree.

Western Soapberry I've discovered Western Soapberry Trees on our remote pasture property - how exciting to think these trees might provide us more natural laundry cleaning! #TaylorMadeHomestead

Now I had researched this tree several years ago when I was using soapnuts in my washing machine as a more environmentally-friendly laundry option.  I loved the soapnuts, they were effective at cleaning our clothes and they kept me from buying commercial laundry detergent along with all the packaging that generally comes along with it.  In researching about soapnuts I read that there is a tree indigenous to the southwest called a Western Soapberry Tree (or Sapindus saponaria ssp. drummondii )  and I thought it would be so cool to run across one of these trees here on our ranch.  But alas, no such trees could be found.

Do I Spy A Western Soapberry Tree??

But on this day as RancherMan & I were standing at the pond of our remote pasture property talking to customers about animals they were about to purchase, I looked up and saw those golden orbs and they looked just like the berries I had seen in my research years ago.

Western Soapberry Clusters I've discovered Western Soapberry Trees on our remote pasture property - how exciting to think these trees might provide us more natural laundry cleaning!

I’m sure our new customers must have thought I’d lost my mind! I excitedly secured some of those berries for further identification.  I took close-up pictures of the bark, the berries, the seed inside the berries and close-ups of the alternate leaf pattern both from the top & the underside and sent them to my extension agent who has been invaluable to me in identifying trees in the past.

Western Soapberry Bark I've discovered Western Soapberry Trees on our remote pasture property - how exciting to think these trees might provide us more natural laundry cleaning! Bark of Western Soapberry Tree

I've discovered Western Soapberry Trees on our remote pasture property - how exciting to think these trees might provide us more natural laundry cleaning! Alternate leaves from the top view – Western Soapberry Tree

 

I've discovered Western Soapberry Trees on our remote pasture property - how exciting to think these trees might provide us more natural laundry cleaning! Alternate leaves from the underside view – Western Soapberry Tree

Photos To Extension Agent For Identification

I was excited when I received this response from my local extension agent:

“Several years ago we did some studies with one of the specialists on soapberry trees. So I have sent this to the Master Gardeners that were involved at that time. We all agree this is the soapberry tree.”

 I've discovered Western Soapberry Trees on our remote pasture property - how exciting to think these trees might provide us more natural laundry cleaning!

WOO HOO!  It’s said that soapberries contain about 37% saponin & were used by native Americans and early settlers for cleaners and soaps.  So I’ve picked some of the berries and am in the process of drying them, then I’ll use them in the small muslin bag that came with the soapnuts I purchased awhile back & I’ll give them a spin in my washing machine with a load of laundry soon – I’ll let you know how it goes.  I’ve read that it can cause skin irritations to those ‘susceptible to them’ so I’ll test it slowly at first.  But how very cool that a tree on our property could be providing our laundry detergent!

~TMH~

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42 thoughts on “Western Soapberry Tree – Natural Laundry Detergent?

  1. Mitzi

    Ther s a video on YouTube explaining the difference between a soap.berryband a China Berry and the guy doing the video cannot figure out how people confuse the two but they do. This year, along highway 287 in North Texas, the Western soap Berry is making a spectacular bloom, revaling thousands of the trees int he cross timbers and rolling plains woods. There should be plenty of fruit this fall to make all the soap you’ll want. (2018)

    Reply
    1. Taylor-Made Homestead Post author

      I can see how they might be similar but I agree – they’re very different too. ~TMH~

      Reply
  2. autumn

    I had no idea soap nuts grew in the States! I began using them in my hair shampoo bar several years ago (love the results!) and then began making a vinegar cleaner with ’em and LOVE the extra kick in cleaning power. The vinegar preserves the nature saponins for several months and the combination cuts through grime quicker. Perhaps you’d be interested to try? https://hopeforbetterliving.com/vinegar-soap-nut-cleaner/ So amazing you have a tree on your property! What a treasure!

    Reply
    1. Taylor-Made Homestead Post author

      I believe soap nuts are slightly different than soapberries autumn. Soapberries are smaller than soap nuts and they’re yellow softer-shelled berries. I believe the saponin levels are different as well. But you’re right, it’s a treasure to have a Western Soapberry Tree right there on our property. I’m planning to harvest more soon. ~TMH~

      Reply
      1. Jason Padvorac

        What a fantastic tree! there are no native soapberry trees growing in my area (Western Washington). I would love to trade some seeds or buy some of those berries from you! If that is possible. If you might be interested in a trade, I can send you my plant list.

        Reply
        1. Taylor-Made Homestead Post author

          Thank you for your kind offer Jason. However when I went searching for the berries I found none this year, perhaps due to another drought year? In any event, the information I’m reading online indicates the only places in the US where the tree grows is in 5-6 southwestern states of the US. Perhaps there’s a northern cultivar better suited to your region? Good luck! ~TMH~

          Reply
  3. Velvet

    we always called those China berries when I was a kid growing up in Oklahoma. We never used them for laundry, never knew we could. But I made my grandma a necklace using the seeds. Not an easy task because the seeds were so hard. I’m gonna go back over to the old homestead and see if one of the trees still exist. If so I’m gonna collect some seed and try to get some going on our homestead. Thanks for the information. This is awesome.

    Reply
    1. Taylor-Made Ranch Post author

      I’m not certain Velvet, but I believe Chinaberry trees and Western Soapberry Trees are two different species. To be certain you can have your extension agent positively identify. I sent pics of the leaves, bark, description of the tree and pictures of the soap berries both in their clusters on the tree, separately and split in half. They identified my trees as the Western Soapberry tree. We had a Chinaberry tree in our back yard growing up and those were not the same as the trees I have on our property now. Good luck! ~TMR~

      Reply
  4. Dyan Taylor

    Hello, I am so interested in your Soapberry Tree. The pictures look like what we call China Berry Tree. Is it the same? I live in Middle TN, but grew up in Southern Alabama and Central Florida and always loved to climb up and hide in the China Berry in our yard. The picture of the leaves and berries look the same and I am just curious to know if it actually is the same tree? Love your blog!!!!!

    Reply
    1. Taylor-Made Ranch Post author

      Thanks for your sweet words Dyan. We had Chinaberry trees in our yard growing up, the ones we had were almost ornamental size and umbrella shaped. The Western Soapberry tree is a different tree than the Chinaberry Tree, although both have small amber-colored berries. The Western Soapberry trees that we have are very tall & lanky – I’m not sure a Chinaberry’s berry actually contain any soponin, the natural soap substance present in Western Soapberry trees. ~TMR~

      Reply
      1. Frank Griffin

        Be sure you can distinguish between chinaberry, which looks similar but is usually white and soapberry. Chinaberry berries and leaves are toxic.

        Reply
        1. Taylor-Made Ranch Post author

          We had Chinaberry trees in our back yard growing up, they were indeed beautiful. I can see how the Western Soapberry Tree & the Chinaberry tree have similar physical characteristics & Wikipedia warns that the leaves & berries of the Chinaberry Tree are toxic to humans if eaten, but I think it goes without saying you should never randomly eat berries or leaves of any tree or plant unless you know they’re safe for consumption. ~TMR~

          Reply
  5. Lucy

    Just found your blog! I’ve been using soapnuts for laundry for years and was wondering, if you don’t mind saying, what county in NE TX do you live? We moved to Red River County in NE TX from the city and bought an old homestead and although it is very hard, it is so rewarding! Anyway, I would love to know if Soapberry Trees are in my area – who knows, maybe I have one out in the pasture! Can’t wait to read more of your blog!

    Reply
    1. Taylor-Made Ranch Post author

      Oh yes Lucy, we’re in Hunt County just south of you, I’d think the trees would certainly be growing in your area. Be watching for the amber berries in the fall after the leaves have fallen from the tree. Good luck! ~TMR~

      Reply
      1. RL Potts

        Any luck with soapberries this year? If you don’t mind, could I come see the tree sometime? I’m in Hunt County too, small world!!! Now that I know for sure they’re here, I’m excited to get out and start looking 🙂

        Reply
        1. Taylor-Made Homestead Post author

          Unfortunately that property has been leased out for cattle grazing this year so I have no idea. But from what I’ve read you look for those golden berries around the time the leaves have all fallen from the trees (so, maybe mid December?) – the berries stay on the branches for several weeks afterward. But your extension agent is a HUGE asset in this kind of thing. If you find those berries and wonder if you’ve got a Western Soapberry Tree you can take pictures of the tree, bark, berries, etc. and send it to your extension agent & they will assist in proper identification. Good luck! ~TMH~

          Reply
  6. tammy

    Loved the info about the soap berry tree I have two growing in my back yard, and I was wondering on how to use the berries. How do you dry them, and after dried I heard that you could let them simmer in water for 30 minutes, then use that mixture for laundry soap. Is that true, or is just using the whole dried berry in the washer better.

    Reply
    1. Taylor-Made Ranch Post author

      Soapberry trees in your back yard Tammy? (#jealous!) I simply allowed my soapberries to air dry until they were all wrinkled & felt hard (I guess about a month) I’m sure you can simmer the berries in water & use that strained soapy water the same as you would liquid laundry detergent, I’ll have to give that a try. I did laundry just the other day using the soap berries – about 6-7 tied in a small muslin bag. It did a great job cleaning our laundry. But I’d like to experiment with the liquid as well. ~TMR~

      Reply
  7. Nancy

    I have harvested the berries from our Western Soapberry trees but have not used them (this is my 1st harvest). Looking forward to your post. I have been wondering how to use them.

    Reply
  8. Emily Oxford

    For the record, it never once occurred to me you’d lost your noodle. I was excited that you were excited. And if you ever need some advice from a tree novice, I have two awesome books in the camper. I refuse to use an “app” for that. Let me know how it all works out for you!! :o)

    Reply
    1. Taylor-Made Ranch Post author

      LOL Emily – if I were you I would have certainly wondered… I’ve often wondered if I should just get a tree book so I can identify the trees I come across both here & at our offsite pasture. Like you, I’ve never found a good ‘app’ for it. ~TMR~

      Reply
  9. Mel

    Ive always wondered about the soap nuts, my boys wear white shirts for school and I wondered whether they do really clean. How cool that you have one growing!

    Reply
  10. Lynn@Southern Direction

    I’m intrigued..I’m fairly positive I’ve seen this tree around here or at least something very close. I’m going to inspect you photos a little closer and keep my eyes wide open when I’m walking about. Thanks for telling about your experience with the soapberry I had never heard of this. Congratulations on being featured on the Home Acre Hop.

    Reply
    1. Taylor-Made Ranch Post author

      Lynn – I was hoping that by including the photos I sent to the extension agent & master naturalists for identification that others in the southwest may be aware of these great trees and seek them out. Here’s hoping there are plenty of these trees in your neck of the woods! ~TMR~

      Reply
  11. Toni

    Your discovery is super cool! I can just imagine how thrilled you were. I’d love to know how well they clean even though I live in the Southeast. Wonderful post! Have a great day.

    Reply
  12. Summers Acres

    What a terrific find! I have heard of soapnuts, but not a soapberry tree. Thanks for sharing with us at The HomeAcre Harvest Hop! I look forward to hearing how they work. Please join us again Thursday for our special edition The Thankful HomeAcre Hop at: http://summersacres.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-thankful-homeacre-hop.html ~Ann

    Reply
    1. Summers Acres

      I just wanted to stop by and let you know that your post will be featured at Thursday’s The Thankful HomeAcre Hop. I will also tweet, facebook, and +1 your post. Please stop by and grab the featured button at: http://summersacres.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-thankful-homeacre-hop.html Congrats! ~Ann

      Reply
  13. Stephanie

    How exciting for you! I’ve used soapnuts for a number of years and have always understood that they are extremely mild, which is why they are recommended for those who are bedridden and for babies, too.

    Reply
    1. Taylor-Made Ranch Post author

      I’ve always heard that as well Stephanie. I assume the warning for those with sensitive skin is through an abundance of caution but always better to be on the safe side I guess. I can’t wait to try them out! ~TMR~

      Reply
  14. Janice

    I live in South Florida and I planted some soapnuts 4 years ago. You have to be very patient, they will sprout eventually. I now have a tree about 20 feet high. I am told I need to wait about 3 more years for soapnuts. Its a pretty tree and looks good on my property

    Reply
    1. Taylor-Made Ranch Post author

      Very cool Janice. I’m surprised it takes them so long to produce. The trees on our property are in a grove & as a result they’ve had to grow straight up to reach the light to survive. Now that we know where they are we’ll be opening up some space for them to be happier. And there may be other soapberry trees around the property so I’ll be sure to go scouting! ~TMR~

      Reply
  15. Judith

    My dad once told us about helping his mom make soap using Soapberries. They lived just outside of Durant, Oklahoma where there used to be lots of Soapberry trees. I think they were considered a ‘trash tree’ and lots of them were cut down, because of the mess they leave when all the berries fall to the gound. You should try to grow some of the berries and start your own grove, you could call it Washer Woman Grove! Or Laundry Land.

    Reply
    1. Taylor-Made Ranch Post author

      LOL Judith! I haven’t seen any berries on the ground yet, they’re all still in the tree. But they’re so high up I’m pretty excited to hear they WILL fall sometime. My research says they stay in the trees long after the leaves are gone (sigh…) RancherMan had to get aggressive with the loppers to harvest these berries for me high up in the trees – good thing he’s a long-tall-drink-of-water! 🙂 ~TMR~

      Reply
  16. Pat

    I’m excited to find out how this goes for you. I was in the process of doing some of my own research here on our property…with a similar tree. Then, a storm came through and blew that tree down. Hmmmppphhh… ! I was not happy about that. We have a small stand of trees that are very similar with leaves similar to these you’ve shown…but they are NOT mature trees yet. So we’ll have to wait to see if they produce these western soap berries. I’ve done a lot of the same research as you…so I’ll be watching for sure! I had received some soap nuts from Live Ready Now …she traded me through the mail. I liked how well they worked. I was also looking forward to harvesting soap berries from out tree until it was blown down. This would be wonderful to have such a resource! Hope these prove to be useful for you. Pat (SW Kaufman County,TX)

    Reply
    1. Taylor-Made Ranch Post author

      How cool Pat that others have researched the very same thing as me! Yes, I’m very excited to give them a try, the berries are drying now & I’ll use them like I did the soapnuts earlier. These soap berries are smaller than the soapnuts I purchased so I’ll have to trial & error to figure out how many to use per load. But yeah, I’m very excited about those trees! The berries are visible now, maybe look around & see if you have some in other areas of your property? Let me know if you find any! ~TMR~

      Reply

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