Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Survival Plant Profile: Florida Soapberry/Soap Nut Tree

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 Permacultue 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. Now I've got plenty of little trees in my nursery that I'll be growing and potting up for sale within the next year or so. We also have a few tall trees left if anyone wants two or three before they sell out.

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.

You can buy soapberry trees from the Florida Food Forests nursery - just let me know you want them, then stop by our booth at a plant show or Farmer's market to pick a few up.


3 Spuds

Name: Florida soapberry/Soap nut tree
Latin Name: Sapindus saponaria
Type: Tree
Size: 30-40'
Nitrogen Fixer: No
Medicinal: No
Cold-hardy: Yes
Exposure: Full sun
Part Used: Dried fruit
Propagation: Seeds
Taste: Don't eat them unless you say a REALLY bad word. Seeds poisonous.
Method of preparation: Dry and use to wash body/clothing
Storability: High
Ease of growing: Easy
Nutrition: Inedible
Recognizability: Low
Availability: Low

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