A young soapberry tree grows in Steve's yard (Gadsden County in Florida's panhandle) where he enjoys its handsome foliage and unusual decorative fruits.
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.
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.
Culture Light: Plants do best in full sun but are tolerant of some light shade. 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 fruits are called soap nuts.
Just add water to work the soap nuts into a lather!
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.