If you’re a back-to-the-land sort or an alternative health, organic-market-shopping type, or a plant lover… you may have come across these trees before.
The Florida soapberry (Sapindus saponaria) is a native tree, though it’s only seen in the middle of the state when planted on purpose. I’ve been told by Dave Chiappinni of Chiappinni Native Farm and Nursery that its only common range in the state is scattered across a few islands on the coast.
According to UF, it’s hardy to USDA Growing Zone 10. This is demonstrably false since there are large specimens growing in Gainesville and bearing fruit quite happily right at the edge of USDA zone 8.
What’s so great about this tree? It grows soap.
Soap on a tree.
For preppers, homesteaders and the cheap, this is good news.
The fruit, erroneously called a “soap nut”, is loaded with saponins. Dry them (and pit them if you like) and they can be used to wash your hands or do a load of laundry when placed in a mesh bag. They last quite a few washings, too.
|Soapberry fruit on the tree.|
I first heard that the trees take 8 years or longer to produce fruit when grown from seed, however my friend Alex Ojeda of Permaculture Jax visited last week and told me that his soapberry trees bore fruit only three years after germination.
Germination is easy with soapberry trees, fortunately. I scarified a bunch of seeds and planted them in little pots this spring and got almost a 100% germination rate. When they’re bigger, they’ll be perfect for planting two or three at a time out in the yard.
Why do I say two or three? Well, like many uncommonly cultivated species, the soapberry needs a mate for pollination. Trees come in male, female and hermaphroditic varieties. Only females and hermaphrodites will bear soap nuts. If you plant three, chances are really good that at least one or two of them will fruit for you.
I’ve planted five in my yard so far. I want lots and lots of soap.
Because really… won’t the Econopocalypse be better when you can take a nice shower between bouts of killing diseased and drug-crazed looters with a broken shovel?
Soapberry trees grow tall with an airy, open habit. In fact, they look a lot like the despised Chinaberry tree that’s invaded railroad tracks and roadsides across the state, though unlike Chinaberry they have almost white bark. They’re quite attractive.
If you have a small yard, I recommend planting three in a tight triangle so they grow like a triple-trunked tree and will pollinate each other without taking up too much space. That’s what I did in my backyard, spacing them about 6′ apart… though you could probably plant three in the same hole about 18″ apart and it would look really cool.
Growing soapberry is easy. Soap nut trees are tolerant of poor soil and grow rather quickly into airy, lovely trees that don’t cast particularly dense shade. Tuck some in on the edge of your food forest!
Just don’t eat them – the seeds are reputedly poisonous.
That’s a small downside on an otherwise excellent survival crop. Every prepper, gardener, homesteader and homemaker in Florida should have their own soap berry trees.
Name: Florida soapberry/Soap nut tree
Latin Name: Sapindus saponaria
Nitrogen Fixer: No
Exposure: Full sun
Part Used: Dried fruit
Taste: Don’t eat them unless you say a REALLY bad word. Seeds poisonous.
Method of preparation: Dry and use to wash body/clothing
Ease of growing: Easy
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Why don’t you grow a loofah plant to go with your soap plant? For the full post apocalyptic bathing experience? Yes, it’s totally a thing! Google “luffa plant” – it’s awesome.
“the full post apocalyptic bathing experience”
I like the way you think.
I have grown luffa – they ARE awesome. I’ve also grown their cousin the “angle gourd:” http://www.thesurvivalgardener.com/angle-gourds-impressive-cucumber-like/
Do you have any saplings for sale this year? I’d really like to get it as a sapling instead of growing it all the way from the seed so I’ll get the seeds quicker.
No – I sold my nursery and no longer have any. However, they do grow very quickly from seed and can fruit in as little as 3 years. If that’s still too long to wait, try Chiappinni Native Farm and Nursery.
how long are the seeds viable?
You mention that the soap nut fruit is poisonous. I have 13 dogs in my yard (yes, I am crazy). How do you harvest the fruit to avoid accidental poisoning?
Most creatures won’t eat them as they taste bad, or so I have heard. Saponins are nasty. And they’re not that poisonous, either. I never worried, though, as I have children and no dogs. We just pick up the fruit as they fall. You could put the tree in a fenced area if you are worried.
We live in zone 8b and had a tree freeze last year. How did you protect your trees from frost?
Sapindus Marginatus is related and works just as well and is cold hardy to Zone 7 in case you’re interested. We just got some seeds today. Excited to get them going!!!
That’s awesome! Thank you.
[…] my Florida Soapberry post from a few years back, I […]
I have had no luck growing soap nut tree from seeds.
David, I have used soap berries in my laundry for years. I currently have a box of them and am wondering if I can just plant one of those? Do I need to scarify? Judy
If they have a pit, I would try it. Generally the soap nuts I have seen for sale are just the husks.
I have recently moved to Florida from North Carolina and just started a 100 square foot square foot garden.
I am in the process of finding some agricultural land close to where I live.
I had to enclose my garden in wire mesh and netting to keep deer and some form of rodents out.
The rodents liked to burrow into newly tilled soil and eat roots etc.
And then I had my first encounter with root knot nematodes.
It wasn’t pretty.
I had to remove half a dozen eggplant plants that just started bearing.
So the question is how does one go about starting a market row gardening in central Florida.
I am close to purchasing a five acre parcel of land.
Whereabouts in Florida? The climate and plants that work vary exceedingly by location. Welcome to the Sunshine State.