Grow Your Own Laundry Soap

washing board.jpgImagine how much money you’d save if you never had to buy laundry soap detergent again. You’d probably think I was mad if I told you that laundry soap grows on trees and you could wash your clothes naturally without making your own soap.

It’s actually true! Soap nut trees, also known as soapberry trees, grow naturally in India and other tropical areas of China, Caribbean, Hawaii and Central America.

As part of my green cleaning workshop, I often talk about soap nuts. Every time I have someone with Indian origins in the class they get super excited because it “reminds them of home”.

I’ve been told first hand that soap nuts are used for every kind of washing you can think of in India. They’re used for bathing, shampooing, dishwashing, laundry and even to treat head lice! Think about those Indian ladies with their beautiful long thick hair, braided down to their buttocks, and how they might keep it in such good condition …. well apparently, soap nuts are the answer.

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I picked up my first soap nuts from a green living expo, tried them and thought they were great. So what are soap nuts?

Soap nuts are the fruit of the Sapindus genus. Sapindus mukorossi is the species that my samples came from and is known by the common name Chinese Soapberry. There are other species that are native to other parts of the world ranging from shrubs to large trees, both deciduous and evergreen. They belong to the Sapindaceae family. Plants in the Sapindaceae family have been found to contain high levels of saponin (a chemical compound that lathers in water).

Australian aborigines have traditionally used Alphitonia excelsa or Red Ash leaves for a similar purpose because of their high saponin content. Rubbing Red Ash leaves in water makes it lather and can be used to wash clothes but they have also been shown to poison fish, so be careful. Soap nuts are said to have the highest amount of saponin. Saponin is a natural detergent, or surfactant, and acts by reducing the surface tension of the water, detaching the dirt from clothes. The dirt is then emulsified and washed away.

If you want to grow your own soap nut trees then you’ll need lots of space and a tropical climate for best results. There’s a Sapindus mukorossi tree growing in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens (just near the Henry Lawson Gate) but it is yet to produce fruit, despite growing there for many years. So the temperate climate may mean that the tree is unable to produce fruit even though it’s able to flower successfully. The tree grows to 20 metres in it’s native tropical regions but it stays much smaller in lower temperatures. Deep clay soil and good moisture is imperative for success.

Seeds need to be scarified (abrasion) or soaked in warm water for 24 hours to initiate germination and they’ll take anywhere from 1 to 3 months to germinate in a glasshouse. Then you’ll have to wait for another 7 to 10 years for the tree to mature and produce fruit.

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Soap nuts are natural laundry soap detergents and fabric softeners all in the one little nut (or drupe to be botanically correct). They don’t leave any chemical residue so they’re great for sensitive skin, safe on babies clothes and ideal for anyone with eczema or psoriasis. All it takes is 4 or 5 whole soap nuts or equivalent pieces in a muslin bag placed in with your wash. Nothing else is needed. When the soap nuts lose their surfactant qualities or saponin, after about half a dozen washes, they become soft and less sudsy, and you can just dispose of them in the compost.

Safe, environmentally friendly and effective laundry soap detergent – Soap nuts or Sapinus mukorossi.