Bouncingbet (Saponaria officinalis)

Family:

Pink Family (Caryophyllaceae)

Other Names:

bruisewort, chimney pink, crowsoap, dog's cloves, fuller's herb, hedge pink, lady-by-the-gate, latherwort, London pride, my lady's washbowl, mock-gilliflower, old maid's pink, ragged sailor, scourwort, sheepweed, soaproot, soapwort, sweet betty, wild sweet william, wood's phlox, world's wonder.

Origin and Distribution:

Bouncingbet was introduced from Europe for its ornamental, medicinal and soaplike properties, and is now common in eastern North America and along the West Coast. This species typically grows in thick patches in waste places like old building sites, along roadsides, railroads and ditchbanks, and occasionally in fields and pastures.

Plant Description:

Bouncingbet is a perennial characterized by smooth leafy stems, a dense show of fragrant phlox-like flowers in summer, and the tendency to form large patches. Stems, leaves and roots contain a thick juice that forms a soaplike lather when mixed with water. Bouncingbet reproduces by seeds and spreading underground stems (rhizomes).

  • Root System:

    Bouncingbet produces short, coarse, almost woody rhizomes.

  • Seedlings and Shoots:

    The two seed leaves (cotyledons) are long, narrow, and joined at the base to form a collar around the stem. Subsequent pairs of leaves are lance-shaped to oval, and like the first leaves, are united around the stem.

  • Stems:

    The stout, erect stems are smooth, thick-jointed, leafy and usually unbranched. Stems often grow in a cluster and are usually 1 to 2 1/2 feet tall (sometimes up to 4 feet tall).

  • Leaves:

    Leaves are opposite, smooth and oval to lance-shaped (2 to 3 inches long, 1 inch wide), tapering towards both ends. Leaves lack petioles (leaf stalks). Instead, the bases of the leaf pairs are united to form a collar around the stem, giving the stem joints a swollen appearance. Three to 5 lengthwise veins are prominent on the undersides of the leaves.

  • Flowers:

    Fragrant, showy, pale pink to whitish flowers are borne in dense, compact, branched clusters at the tops of stems. Flowers are 1 inch wide and have 5 blunt-ended, slightly notched petals, which point back, away from the flower center. Occasionally, double flowers are produced. The sepals (floral leaves beneath the flower) fuse to form a smooth, tube-like calyx (3/4 inch long), from which the petals emerge. Approximately 20 thin veins run lengthwise along the calyx and 5 small teeth surround the opening. The calyx turns reddish as the flower matures.

  • Fruits and Seeds:

    A cylindrical to oblong, pointed seedpod is formed within the calyx, which disintegrates as the seedpod matures. Once mature, the seedpod splits open at the top, forming 4 teeth. Each seedpod contains numerous seeds (1/16 inch long), which are rough, dull black, flattened and kidney-shaped.

Similar Species:

White campion (Silene pratensis) can be distinguished from bouncingbet by its hairy stems and leaves. Bladder campion (Silene vulgaris) can be distinguished by its deeply lobed flower petals and papery, bladder-like calyx. In addition, white campion and bladder campion do not grow in large, dense patches like bouncingbet.

Biology:

Flowering occurs from July to September. Flowers have a sweet fragrance that tends to get stronger after dusk, attracting night moths for pollination.

Bouncingbet often forms large dense colonies. For small areas, hand removal is the best method of control. For large areas, repeated mowing just before the plants begin to flower can provide reasonable control.

Toxicity:

The soaplike action of bouncingbet when crushed in water is attributed to natural chemicals called saponins (types of glycosides) that are poisonous to livestock and humans. All parts of the plant are toxic, especially the seeds and roots. Ingestion of bouncingbet may cause severe gastrointestinal irritation, and lead to destruction of red blood cells if the saponins are absorbed in the bloodstream. Signs of poisoning include vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Animals usually avoid eating bouncingbet because of its bitter taste. Poisonings most often occur when prepared feeds are contaminated with bouncingbet seeds or foliage (the toxic properties remain in dried plant material).

Facts and Folklore:

  • The common name, 'bouncingbet', is an abbreviated form of 'bouncing Betty', an old-fashioned term for a washerwoman.

  • Bouncingbet was used as a soap-substitute as early as the Middle Ages. The genus name is derived from the Latin term, sapo, or soap. When bouncingbet leaves, stems and roots are crushed in water, a soapy, sudsy mixture is created, which can dissolve oils, fats and grease (hence, the other common names such as 'latherwort' and 'soapwort').

  • The soapy solution created from bouncingbet was especially useful in the early days for cleaning and shrinking wool cloth and cleaning silk (hence, the common name 'fuller's herb'; a 'fuller' was one who worked with cloth). During the industrial revolution, fields of bouncingbet were planted near textile mills as a source of detergent. Bouncingbet is still used in some parts of Europe to clean old tapestries.

  • A soapy solution made from bouncingbet leaves is very effective in glossing old china and glass.

  • The folk name, 'London pride', refers to the use of bouncingbet's fragrant flowers as a natural deodorizer along the streets of an early, sewerless London.

  • Early beer brewers took advantage of bouncingbet's soaplike properties by using its juice to produce a frothy "head" on beer.

  • Bouncingbet has been used medicinally for a wide variety of ailments: skin problems such as poison ivy rashes and dermatitis, leprosy, venereal diseases, liver ailments, cough, and kidney stones.