Many of us in this day and age are recognising that in order to transition to a more ethical, environmentally friendly and sustainable future, many of our habits must change. One of the habits that we can change is a reliance on synthetic, polluting cleaners for our bodies and in our homes. Polytunnel gardeners are in an excellent position to make the shift to a more natural cleaning regime. In our polytunnels, we can grow a range of soap plants containing saponin. These plants can be used, without any chemical processing, as a substitute for soap. Here are just a few of the soap plants polytunnel gardeners could grow:
Soapwort (One of the Traditional Soap Plants)
Both the leaves and the roots of Saponaria officinalis are high in saponins. Saponins create a lather in water can can be used as a surfactant in place of modern soaps and detergents. A member of the pink family, this hardy perennial is often considered a weed, yet does produce attractive flowers, which will also attract butterflies to your polytunnel.
Take care as soapwort can irritate the eyes, but it can be extremely useful for applications away from the face. You can simply rub some leaves on your hands as a quick alternative to soap, or blend roots with water and strain for a liquid soap or detergent solution.
Clematis is a common garden plant. This climber can be found in many UK gardens. Few people, however, are aware that this is another plant that is high in saponins. The leaves and flowers can be used to make a simple natural soap. Like soapwort, this plant was used by Native Americans and other native groups as a natural cleanser. (Native Americans were cleanly, and often appalled by the smell of European pioneers!)
Amole bulbs are another common soap substitute used by Native Americans. Members of the lily family, amole develops attractive flowers on a long stem, and grows large, brown, tennis ball sized bulbs. Bulbs are found at least a foot underground, but when retrieved, can be used to make soap. When the outer brown coating of the bulbs are removed, the bulb can added to water and rubbed between the hands to create a rich lather that can be used to wash your body, hair or clothes.
Desert growing plants may not be the most obvious addition to a UK polytunnel garden. But if you are interested in growing exotics in a heated polytunnel, yucca can be one particularly useful plant to grow. The root contains the most saponins. Of course, taking the root will kill the plant. If you pound and soak the leaves, however, you can use the leaves to make fiber to use for cordage, while the soaking water will contain sufficient saponins for bathing or washing clothes.
Do you grow soap plants in your polytunnel? Do you make soap using polytunnel produce? Let us know in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.