The Soapberry Tree

Have you heard of Soap Nuts yet? I know some of you have. Soap Nuts are an all natural laundry detergent, which are actual berries from the Asian Soapberry Tree. They are the new big thing. Although I haven’t had a chance to try them yet, I’ve heard amazing things. From what I understand, you put three “nuts” in a small cloth bag and throw it into your wash in the place of detergents. They are supposed to last through three loads before they need to be replaced.

The dried shells of these amber colored berries produce a substance called saponin, which causes a soaping effect, and have been used for hundreds of years by Native Americans, among others, for washing purposes. When I found out that these Soap Nuts came from a tree, my first thought was, I wonder if I could get one of those trees? Where would I get an Asian (or Chinese) Soapberry Tree, anyways?

After looking into it a little more, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there is also a Western Soapberry Tree! It is native to Texas, and grows all over the South West United States, but it is pretty hardy from what I read, and can tolerate many different planting zones.

I think it would be SO cool to have a tree which produces all of the natural detergent I need. If only I could find an online tree nursery to send me one!! I’m still trying to find one which carried these. If you live in Texas, or surrounding states, you may just want to keep your eye out for clusters of these amber fruits called soap nuts. And for goodness sakes, if you spot some, harvest them!!

Have you ever used soap nuts? Have you harvested them in the wild before? I’d love to hear from those of you who have used them before. Or, if you know of an online nursery which sells these, help me out!!

About Kendra 1132 Articles
A city girl learning to homestead on an acre of land in the country. Wife and homeschooling mother of four. Enjoying life, and everything that has to do with self sufficient living.

39 Comments

  1. I live in a rural area of SW Oklahoma and spotted these trees loaded with berries last week about an 1/8 miles from my house, on the roadside. I also discovered i had at least one on my property a few days later. I have searched and search and cannot find a website to see exactly WHEN and HOW to harvest them and how to PREPARE them. Anyone know? I wonder how hard it is to get the hard nut out? If they are easy to harvest i will share;)

    • Carol it’s been about a year since some of these comments were posted but I need some of the leaves that are produced by the soapberry tree for medicinal purposes but I live in North Carolina where this species cannot be found, closest would be Florida. I would be more than willing to pay for the cost of shipping a handful of leaves….I know the weather is changing and it may impact the health of the leaves but it would be a huge help to me. If any one else reads this post and can help me out I would be ever so grateful.

      Thank you!

      Jt

    • I have been harvesting the soap nuts from my North Texas trees for three years now. I can honestly say I have not purchased laundry detergent in all of that time. My husband is a farmer (who repairs his own equipment) so his clothes usually get really, really dirty. The soap nut liquid cleans them as well as any commercial brand I’ve tried. I still use bleach or oxy-clean along with soap nut liquid for whites. The berries are harvested in September or October. We use a pole saw and cut them from the tree. I then spread them on a window screen that is supported about 6 inches off the ground to dry and until they turn wrinkled and translucent. This takes a day or two. I have frozen them at this point in gallon sized ziploc bags until ready for use. This year I am placing some in open containers and leaving in my pantry to use for later. I’m monitoring closely to make sure they don’t mold. I’m still learning. Here is the recipe I use for my detergent.

      20 soap nuts and 6 cups of water. Boil for 20 minutes. Then add one more cup of water and boil another 10 minutes. Finally add 2 more cups of water and boil for 10 more minutes. While boiling I smash the berries with a fine potato masher or the back of a spoon. The seed will come out at this time and the pulp and skin will come loose. The liquid turns a golden color. When it cools a bit I strain it twice, removing pulp. At this point I pour the liquid into ice trays (3-4 cubes for a load of laundry), or I have canned the liquid (with a water bath). It depends on what’s most convenient. After the seal is broken on your canning jar the liquid needs to be refrigerated after a week, or it might start to mold. I really enjoy working with the berries and find myself watching my trees in early spring for their blooms! Hope this helps.

  2. I just discovered earlier this month in September 2013 that Soapberry Trees are growing on my property in West Texas. They have berries on them which I will harvest next month in November. Hope I am not too late. I can’t wait to see if they can be used as soap. Will let you know how things go.

  3. There are several people here who have stated that Chinaberry is the same as soapberry. This is NOT true. Chinaberry actually has insecticidal properties (and the same chemical compound found in Neem oil) which is great if you have aphids in lettuce or peppers, but not so much to use on your laundry. Be careful about what you hear on blogs, its not always true.

    I have found the Chinese soapberry tree onsale online, but not the Florida Soapberry tree. The difference is tree height. The Chinese version is a much taller (50 ft) tree, so if you’re space constrained, then its not for you. I have yet to find a florida soapberry for sale.

    Also note, that there are male and female trees as well as both in one tree, so be careful what you buy. If you buy either a male or female and don’t have a mate tree, then you’ll never get berries.

    Seems like someone would offer this somewhere given all the interest ??? !!!

    • I live in central Oklahoma and have several Western Soapberry on my property.
      The Chinaberry is considered an invasive species, berries do not contain the saponins (soapy qualities) of the Soapberry, the wood is weak, and the berries turn white in late winter.

      The Soapberry is a native tree, the wood is hard and wind resistant, it produces yellow translucent berries in late fall and winter (turning black) which can be used for cleaning and has limited medicinal uses. It takes about 9 years to produce berries.

      It is a Polygamo-dioecious tree: having unisexual flowers with staminate (male) and pistillate (female) flowers borne on different trees, but also having some perfect flowers on each tree. So it is possible for it to self-pollinate.

      Harvest the berries late fall/winter up up to when they turn black.

  4. James, You said you had black walnut trees on your property. I’d like to see if I could purchase some from you? I’ve been looking for some here in central Florida but to no avail. They are good for making Walnut Tincture which is used medicinally for killing parasites in the body. Please do respond and let me know if you can help me in this?

    Thanks Dennis, You can respond with me @ [email protected]

    For the others on soap nut Trees: yes you can buy them on ebay and plant them. For info see these sites I’ve done research for you & myself:

    http://www.ehow.com/how_7636759_grow-chinese-soapberry-tree.html

    https://www.google.com/search?q=Chinese+Soapberry+plant&hl=en&client=firefox-a&hs=nCi&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&prmd=imvns&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=eX4uT4TfJMeftwfDzdH0Dw&ved=0CIABELAE&biw=1152&bih=659

    Enjoy!
    Rev. Dennis Hammett

  5. I have a big tree next to our cypress oxbow that has this tree that stood out. I research the leafs and fruit to find out it is a soapberry and it is loaded with ripen dark berries right now but did not know the benefits, if any, the tree had. It is a soapberry and I have pictures of it that I took two days ago if you are interested. There could be three buchel backets of the berries on the tree and another three on the ground. Oh, we live in Louisiana

  6. the china berry tree is the same thing, you can do a search on google for soapberry tree and find a lot of information. the china berry tree is very common in the U.S. A lot of people don’t like them because they are messy. As far as I know I don’t have any on my property, but I am going out searching and see if I do.

  7. Kendra, et al:

    I have moved recently to the Texas Hill Country and although I have lived in Texas most of my life, I did not recognize the soapberry trees on my land, thought they were Black Walnut or something at first. Now that I know what they are, I will try some of y’all’s suggestions. Beware of the Soapberry (bore) beetle, they tell me. I like the idea of using what the Comanches used. ( We also found that the white spots on Pickly Pear cactus are from a beetle and makes a great red dye, which the native americans used and were later sold to the British to dye their ” Redcoats.” More on the soapberry after some experimentation.
    James

  8. Nichole,
    You can order $25 worth of stuff (and pay 8 dollars a soapberry plant) or you can order 25 soapberry plants at 3.20 a piece.

    Kendra, I just found your blog and I love it! And this soap berry tree idea is something I am definitely going to research!

  9. This tree really sounds interesting. I am getting all the ideas I can for when I move to my dream homestead in the future :). I just checked the site that Jason H listed for this tree. They do have them in stock now but the down side is that you have to order a minium of 25 of these plants. They are 3-6″ and the total would be about $85.00 not including shipping. I guess it really isn’t too bad of an investment because you get 25 plants. You might be able to buy them raise them up for a few years and sell off the extras. You could sell them for $10 each and you’ve made way more than you spent. Its something I would do but I live in the city :(. Otherwise you could possibly split the order with a few friends. Just a thought. P.S. I am enjoying your blog.

  10. Hmm, very interesting! I’m in north Texas and I have harvested wild grapes, blackberries and plums. I’m going to look for these!

  11. I have never tried them but I did order some seeds online and so far, 2 months later, none of them every sprouted even though I water everyday. Next time I will buy the sprouted ones.

  12. Duh, I didn’t even think about refridgerating it. I love the ice cube idea!

    Also, I think adding essential oils would make me more likely to toss my other cleanser.. I’m all about the smell. Soapberries have a nice clean smell, but I think I’ll go get something nice from the essential oil store I go to… they have some really yummy blends.

    Maybe I’ll finish off that bag after all…

  13. I have found that the liquid will last a week or two, if refrigerated, but if you were to add a bit of essential oil (I like to add orange or lemon if I’m using the liquid for housecleaning) it will last a very long time. Another great idea to keep your soapnuts liquid from going bad is to use an ice cube try to freeze it (well labelled, of course;-) Since it takes about 2 tablespoons of the liquid to do a large load of laundry, just pop a soapnut icecube into the washer, and you’re set to go. Soapnuts have replaced all the cleaners in my home….from floors to ceilings, and everything in between.
    I LOVE your sight, Kendra!

  14. I don’t have messy kids’ clothes to wash, but everything else I’ve tried has come out just fine using soapnuts. I only use the whole soapnuts in hot water–I think you’re supposed to use the liquid form in cold water because it disperses better. I’ve never had a problem with mine molding as long as I use it within a week–I just make a small amount at a time. You can find instructions for making the liquid soap here:

    http://www.laundrytree.com/using-soapnuts/soapnut-soak/soapnut-soak-recipe.html

    I wouldn’t recommend adding essential oils, though, since I heard they can break down the clothing’s fiber. The smell doesn’t last for more than a few seconds, anyway, in my experience. I think it would be so cool to have a soapberry tree! You got the wheels turning in my head for sure. 🙂

  15. We have a Chinaberry tree in the yard, which I believe is the same thing. The berries are kind of squishy. Are you supposed to dry them before using them, or just use them as they are?

  16. I love my soap nuts. My husband is in construction, so I need something that can handle his work clothes, plus we cloth diaper two kiddos, so I need something gentle enough for babies’ bums.

    Kara, I’ve heard you need to refrigerate soap nut concentrate to keep it from going bad.

    Here is a post I read awhile ago that does a great job of explaining soap nuts and of doing some price comparisons. I purchased the same ones that she mentions, which are pieces and are cheaper than the whole nuts, and I got them on Ebay and found some that had free shipping.
    http://under1000permonth.blogspot.com/2009/09/soap-nuts-where-frugal-meets-green.html

  17. I’ve tried them – they’re okay. I’ve tried using just the bag, and I’ve also boiled mine to make a cleanser that can be used on all surfaces, as well as in the wash. It only lasts for a few days before it goes mouldy though… so I only did it once.

    I have a big bag of them that I should use up.. I really only tried them a couple of times.

    I would recommend getting a small bag of them to try.

  18. I’ve been curious too but I think I figured out the cost at one point and it’s cheaper to do the recipe I’ve been using for the past few years. If you are interested here is the direct link to it. I’m happy with it and it saves me a ton of money so I don’t really plan on trying the soap nuts anymore. Now growing your own tree of them may change my mind!

    Jen

    • Jen,

      Yep, the recipe I use for homemade laundry detergent is pretty much the same as the one you use. It hasn’t worked so well with my well water though. I switched to the liquid version, and it has helped a little, but I still get a ring of goo around the washer tub if I don’t alternate with store bought detergent.

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