Sunday, February 24, 2013

Soap berry, soap nut ... the real environmental issues make me nuts

Hello everyone,

Hope you are fine, and did some interesting things over the weekend.

I had a really pleasant Saturday morning, at a local market, with a friend of mine.  We got to visit and also look over all sorts of interesting crafts, baking, and good things to eat generally.

For the first time, I saw something called soap nuts.  The idea is that you put some of these nuts (or more accurately, the dried shell covering the seeds of the Sapindus mukorossi / Chinese Soapberry) into water to make a soap solution and then you can wash ... all sorts of things.

You know me by now enough to know that I came home and looked up S. mukorossi on the internet. Browsing plant info always makes me happy.  It turns out to be a small tree, grows in Nepal and regions 'round, has been used for a very long time in those regions for cleaning ... and is one of the current trendy eco-cleaners.

There are quite a few places on line promoting soapberries.  One place talks about only half the soapberries in the Doon region of Nepal being harvested ... that the rest are "wasted" because they decompose on the ground.  That sure didn't sell me!  Gee, when plant material decomposes on the ground - more accurately in the ground - the soil and its billions of living organisms are being fed and nurtured.  Whoever wrote the website blurb wasn't a gardener!  That same site, and another site too, talked about the economic advantages that could come to a region that started planting lots of soapberry trees; jobs would be created, money would flow in.  That got me wondering what local food crops might not be planted if people felt themselves pushed to plant this new cash crop ... and then I got thinking about agricultural practices and soil enhancements and whether overcropping the soapberry would deplete the soil.

Several websites sold kits of soapnuts, plus bags to put them in if you were doing laundry (so you wouldn't have soggy plant material on your shirts I guess).  There is a short cut recipe for using soapnuts: simply soak in water for 5 minutes and you'll have a quantity to do some hand laundry, or your hair. But to get more of the soap-making ingredient saponin out of the shells you need to simmer the shells in water for 5 minutes, let stand and strain. I guess a target market that would use bits of plants to make soap won't mind doing some prep work, but it's a small target market.  (and you know I'm one who'd do this, so I'm not being disparaging of the work ... just of the short cut given to try and expand the market).

No website spoke about how the soapnuts are transported.  I suppose, given that a shipment probably goes by ship and is small in volume compared to many other products, that overall it's not a big fossil fuel footprint.  I wonder, however, about that.  And wonder about what plant grown locally could be chopped up, or dried to make soap.

Soapwort, one of my over-growing garden herbs/weeds is a mild cleaner, with saponins in its roots and the aerial plant parts (ie the green, growing parts).  It's long had a use in cleaning delicate old textiles in museums, and was used for hundreds of years in rural England to clean lots of stuff. Ruth Goodman demonstrated its use - by washing her hair in a lovely green solution! - on a recent episode of Wartime Farm, a BBC production.

Overall, I'm happy to have discovered something about a plant.  But a lot of red flags went up about yet another product that will, for a fad-time, flow into North American markets but might be to the detriment of far-off communities and that we don't need to expend energy importing.

Sort of analogous to the "why don't they exchange recipes?" question that arises when you realize Canada ships butter cookies to England, and vice versa.

Ah well!

Best regards,

Why's Woman

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