Soap Plants

Soap Plant (or Soaproot) Life

An unassuming little bulbed plant was actually the source of two opposites: glue and soap for Miwok Californians. The soap plant's wavy leaves grow out of a rusty bulb that holds onto the dirt even in places like a well-worn hiking path where we saw it on a guided nature walk. Miwok Californians would pry soap plants out with a digging stick to make a multitude of useful items: brushes, soap, even a roasted food.

A soap plant right in the middle of a hiking trail, taken by Laura Smith, Sunol, CA, 3/2014

The Miwoks separated fibers out of the leaves and placed them next to each other. They tied a twig around the bunch to hold it temporarily. Then using the plant one more time, they squeezed out a gluelike substance from the bulb, which they would rub into the base of the brush. After a few days in the sun, this would become a strong handle for the brush. These tools were used as hairbrushes, pot scrubbers, or as cooking implements.

A Quest to Observe Soap Plants

Soap plants live in many beautiful areas of California: rocky peaks, grasslands, chaparral (a heathlike scrubland often on hillsides), and sunny spots within woodlands. A ranger pointed out a mini-grove of soap plants growing uphill on a hiking path in Sunol Regional Park here in Northern California. We all bent down to look at the wavy leaves that did seem to echo the shape of the Pacific, many miles away over ridges and ridges.

I would like to return in early summer, maybe even at night. The soap plant blossoms in many pale white flowers that open only when the sun goes down. It beckons all the night insects (like native bees staying up late) that we might have trouble seeing.