Soap Plants

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    ETYMOLOGY, pharmaceutical lore, and wide knowledge of ancient herbals and modern systematic botany are combined in the fascinating series of articles contributed by Mr. Hilderic Friend to the Gardeners' Chronicle under the general title of “Horticulture in relation to Commerce”. The article in the issue for Nov. 28 points out how varied are the plants and parts of plants that have been used by native races as soap materials. As a result, the identification of a plant simply named a soap plant or soap-wort is not an easy matter. One tropical family, the Sapindacæe, represented commonly in Great Britain by the horse-chestnut, contains a number of soap plants, including the soap-tree of China, Sapindus chinensis; the fruit of another species is used in India under the name of soap nut, whilst Humboldt describes the natives on the river Cariaco washing their linen with the fruit of the parapara (Sapindus Sapon-aria). In California is found a large bulb, Chlorogalum pomeridianum, of which the mucilage provides a lather, whilst the root of Gypsophila iStruthium, a native of Spain, lathers in water. In fact, decoctions, roots, barks, fruits, and seeds have all been utilised, whilst the modern soap industry probably had its origin in the value, very early discovered, of certain plant ashes as cleansing agents. Thus, Pliny states that soap was first prepared by boiling goat's fat with ashes from the beech tree.

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    Soap Plants. Nature 129, 52 (1932) doi:10.1038/129052c0

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