Common Names: soapberry, soapnut, Florida soapberry, tropical
Family: Sapindaceae (soapberry Family)
tree Drought Tolerant Has Ornamental (non-edible) Fruit Has
Medicinal Uses Has Unusual or Interesting Foliage
Soapberry is a small tree, growing to 30-40 ft (9-10 m) in height,
with a rounded, usually symmetrical crown. The leaves are pinnately
compound, about 12 in (30 cm) in length, and each of the 6-13
leaflets is about 4 in (10 cm) long. The leaves may be odd-pinnate
(with a terminal leaflet) or even-pinnate (lacking a terminal
leaflet), with both types often occurring on a single tree.
Specimens from extreme southern Florida and tropical America have
wings on the leaf rachis between the leaflets, and some authorities
consider these southern trees to be the true Sapindus saponaria
(tropical soapberry) and the soapberries from northern Florida and
along the Coastal Plain to South Carolina to be S. marginatus
(Florida soapberry). We'll lump them both as one species for the
purpose of this profile. Soapberry leaves are generally deciduous,
but may be semi-evergreen in tropical climates. The inflorescence is
a triangular shaped panicle almost a foot (30 cm) long, containing
very many small creamy white flowers. The showy flower cluster is
borne at the tip of a current year's shoot, and spells the end of
elongation for that particular shoot. The fruit is a weird looking
orange-brown, partially translucent, globular, leathery, drupelike
affair (called a soap nut) about 3/4 in (2 cm) across. Each fruit
contains a single black seed. The fruits often persist on the tree
for months and can be considered attractive in their own right.
soapberry flower cluster
In spring the soapberry produces tiny blossoms that are arranged in
a cluster called a panicle.
Soapberry is usually found growing in calcareous woodlands,
hammocks, and coastal scrub, often in the vicinity of Indian shell
mounds near the coast. Sapindus saponaria (including S. marginatus)
ranges from coastal South Carolina through Florida, the Caribbean
and into the Central and South American tropics. A third New World
species, Sapindus drumondii (western soapberry) occurs in the
southwestern U.S. and Mexico.
Light: Plants do best in full sun but are tolerant of some light
Moisture: Established soapberry trees are very drought tolerant.
Hardiness: USDA Zones 8 - 11.
Propagation: The seeds germinate readily, and seedlings are often
found beneath parent trees.
Soapberry is very drought tolerant and very salt tolerant: a great
choice for a garden near the coast. Soapberry makes a nice small
shade tree for a low maintenance landscape. Soapberry does well in
poor, dry or nutrient deficient soils. The foliage is handsome, the
flowers are fragrant and attract bees, and the fruits are
conversation starters (and useful, too).
Soap nuts of various Sapindus species are used medicinally for
many purposes, especially by the Ayurveda of the Indian
Subcontinent. A solution of soap nuts and water is used to treat
eczema, psoriasis and head lice, as well as internal disorders
including epilepsy and migraines. Saponin, an active ingredient in
soap nuts, is reported to have anti-tumor properties. Jewelers use
soap nuts to clean precious metals. Something about soap nuts
fascinates Jesse, the border collie, too: When she finds a soap nut
on the ground, she takes it away and buries it!
The common name and the scientific name reflect the presence of
saponin in the fruits. Saponin is an antimicrobial natural
detergent. When soap nuts are wetted, crushed and rubbed, or just
wetted and rubbed, they produce a soaplike lather which was used as
a cleaning detergent by American Indians and is still used as such
in tropical countries. Lately, soap nuts (especially from the
Chinese soapberry, S. mukorossi) have enjoyed a renaissance among
modern Westerners looking for an environmentally friendly
alternative to chemical detergents. Add a handful of soap nuts in a
mesh or cotton bag to the laundry in the washing machine. Soap nuts
are said to be safe for wool, silk and other delicate fabrics.
The Sapindaceae is a large family with more than 150 genera and
2000 species in the tropics and subtropics of both hemispheres.
There are about a dozen species in the genus Sapindus.
The seeds inside the fruits are said to be poisonous.