There’s something romantic about this photo of Saponaria officinalis growing in front of a weathered picket fence. I can almost imagine walking from my little cottage to the back garden to pick some common soapwort for laundry day. This would be once I had pulled the fresh-baked pies from the oven, of course.
Saponaria officinalis has many common names, including one that I include in my list of all-time favourites, bouncing bet. Not only is the name catchy, but it also evokes imagery about its uses and history. In Elizabethan England, laundry was done by scrubbing clothing against a washboard in a central plaza. The laundry women became known as “bouncing Elizabeths”, or “bouncing bets”, referring to their motions while scrubbing the clothing. Saponaria officinalis was compared to the bouncing bets for two reasons. One, the calyx and petals are said to bear a resemblance to the pinned up petticoats and backside of the washerwomen (not quite following that one, myself). Two, Saponaria officinalis has a high saponin content contributing to its historical use as a laundry detergent. According to Flora of North America, “the leaves of this species were gathered and either soaked or boiled in water, [with] the resulting liquid being used for washing as a liquid soap”.
The Weed Science Society of America (click on Bouncingbet) has an article chronicling the geographic spread of this species. Originally from France and Germany, Saponaria officinalis was introduced to England by monks. It quickly became popular for its use as a soap and medicine. After the industrial revolution mechanized the textile industry, it was planted in masses as a source of detergent. When Europeans settled North America, bouncing bet was one of the species imported for its useful properties. It quickly became naturalized wherever the settlers went. It is now weedy in many parts of the world, but is considered by many to be particularly pretty (for a weed).
The pink to white flowers of Saponaria officinalis certainly add beauty to the cottage garden, roadside, or fallow field. Occasionally, the typically five-petaled flowers have double the amount of petals, a trait that has been encouraged in some cultivars including ‘Flore Pleno’. Saponaria officinalis is a rhizomatous perennial that will quickly form wide clumps in open ground. It has upright stems that reach a height of up to 90 cm.