Soapberry Tree: How To Grow Your Own, Soap Nut Uses & More!
Money might not grow on trees, but it turns out that soap does!
The soapberry tree and the fruit it produces, most commonly referred to as soap nuts or soap berries, are Mother Nature’s solution for cleanliness and personal hygiene (she has one for everything after all).
While not technically soap, which by definition is made using powerful caustic chemicals, the saponins found in the skin of soapberries mimic many of the effects of true soap.
They work as a surfactant to lower the surface tension between the water you’re using to wash yourself (or your laundry, a surface, etc.) and the greasy dirt that you’re trying to remove. They also form a foamy lather that is similar to what you get when using common soaps and detergents, although there isn’t nearly as much of it.
In general, if a product produces a lot of foam it’s safe to assume that it contains chemical foaming agents such as SLS, which don’t actually help at all with cleaning and are added for the sole purpose of fooling you into thinking that a product cleans better and lasts longer than it actually does.
Worse yet, these foaming agents are just about the least of your worries when it comes to average household cleaning and personal care products.
Fortunately for you and your family, you’ve discovered the wonderful little soap nut and are now just paragraphs away from knowing how to grow your own soapberry tree and its amazing fruit to replace the harmful products that permeate your home.
In the rest of this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about this amazing plant - including a step-by-step guide on how to grow your own soapberry tree, 10 awesome ideas for how to use the soap nuts it produces (or that you’ve already bought online), and the many benefits of cleaning yourself and your stuff with soapberry based products.
Where does the soapberry tree grow?
There are currently 13 recognized species of trees and shrubs in the genus Sapindus, all of which are found in tropical and subtropical regions.
The most common species of soapberry tree are S. saponaria (AKA Western soapberry), which is native to the Americas but can also be found in some regions of Africa and Australia, and S. mukorossi (AKA Indian soapberry or ritha), which is native to the Asian subcontinent but grows widely, along with various local species, as far east as China & Taiwan. There are also well-known species from Florida (S. marginatus) and Hawaii (S. oahuensis).
Unsurprisingly, the soap nut has thus been used as a multi-purpose cleaner by indigenous populations in all of these locations for thousands of years.
How to grow your own soapberry tree
While soapberry trees aren’t difficult plants to grow, there are some things you’ll need to do in order to ensure that your soap nut is able to grow into a strong and healthy tree that is capable of producing plenty of magical little soap berries.
Soapberry tree ideal growing conditions
Soapberry trees occur naturally around the globe in warm-temperate and tropical regions, which is a pretty big area, to say the least. This means that they’re able to grow in a wide range of conditions, but one thing they can’t tolerate is extreme cold.
Temperatures below freezing, especially for more than a day or two, will likely spell the end for your tree. Ideally, temperatures should stay between 41°F (5°C) and 82°F (28°C). Excessive heat and dry conditions are also not likely to result in a healthy tree.
Step-by-step guide to growing your own soapberry tree
1. The first step is to prepare the seed of the soap nut by weakening its outer coating. You do this by rubbing the surface with fine-grit general-purpose sandpaper and then soaking it in warm water for 24 hours. The seeds from our handmade soapberry mala come ready for planting, although it would certainly be a shame to destroy such a beautiful bracelet when you can simply prepare a raw soap nut yourself.
2. While you wait for your seeds to soak, you can prepare the pots that you will plant them in. Fill your pot with germinating/potting soil and then plant the seed about an inch deep. We recommend you plant just one seed per pot.
3. You’ll want to keep the soil fairly moist by watering it daily, although it should be allowed to dry out between each session.
4. In an ideal climate, it usually takes about 1-3 months for soapberry seedlings to germinate. Once it has sprouted, remove the seedling’s root ball from the pot.
5. Choose a mostly sunny spot in your yard where you’d like to plant your soapberry tree and dig a hole deep and wide enough to allow you to spread out the plant’s roots (gently) with your fingers.
6. Mix the potting soil with the ground soil and saturate it with water to reduce the size of any large air pockets.
7. We suggest that you occasionally add organic nutrients such as Bokashi or homemade organic fertilizer to the soil surrounding your plant(s) to keep them as healthy and happy as possible.
8. Soapberry trees take around 9-10 years to begin bearing fruit, so in the meantime, you might want to begin experimenting with soap nuts you’ve bought online or try our awesome soapberry-based sensitive skin products.
How to use soap nuts
Seeing as you’ve got some time to kill before you’re harvesting your homegrown soapberries, you might as well get a head start on learning how to put them to good use!
The good news is that making your own soapberry soap is not at all difficult. The better news - it’s a multipurpose cleaner that can be used just about anywhere in the home or on the body.
If you like to get a little more complicated (and have access to a lab and industrial equipment), you can even make biofuel and various biomedical & biochemical products from soap nuts - but that’s an article for another day!
For now, let's stick to the basics and learn how to make and use good old-fashioned soapberry soap.
How to make Soapberry soap
Some natural products can be almost as difficult to produce as their synthetic counterparts, requiring complex extraction processes and specialized equipment.
Fortunately, soapberry soap does not fall into that category!
All you’ll need is a pot, some water (preferably purified or distilled) and a couple of handfuls of soap nuts.
On the tree, soap berries start out green and then ripen yellow. Once picked or after falling off the tree, the fruit will turn a dark purple-brown, becoming dry and wrinkly. We want to use the berries when they are at this last stage. If you purchase your soap nuts online they will almost certainly come in this dried-out form.
Once you’ve decided how much soap you want to make, add soap nuts at a ratio of two per every cup of water (in other words, you need around 30-35 berries to make a gallon of soap), and then put the mixture on to boil for 30 minutes.
Next, strain the liquid to remove the seeds and skin and put it into the refrigerator for storage. It should last about a month when stored this way.
10 Ways to use soapberry soap
Just like true soap, soapberry soap is a multipurpose cleaner. Unlike true soap, it’s also great for those with sensitive skin or scalp, and for cleaning things that might ordinarily be damaged by contact with soap or detergent.
Here are 10 ways that you can use your soapberry soap:
1. Shampoo: Soapberry extract is a great way to clean your hair, especially if it’s naturally oily or you have a sensitive scalp that doesn’t react well to soap-based shampoos.
2. Body wash + hand soap: Soapberries are naturally antibacterial, pH-balanced and gentle on the skin, making them perfect for washing any part of your body, or that of babies and young children. If you like, you can also add a few drops of your favorite essential oil to your soapberry extract to add a pleasant fragrance.
3. Face wash: Put a small amount of liquid soapberry extract or rub a boiled soapberry in your hand until you get a lather and then use it as a gentle cleanser for the face.
4. Dishwashing soap: Combine your soapberry extract with some white vinegar and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) to create a powerful yet totally non-toxic dish soap.
5. All-natural dandruff treatment: Combine 1 part soapberry extract with 3 parts coconut oil and massage this mixture into your scalp. Let it sit for 15-20 minutes and then rinse it off with your homemade soapberry shampoo.
6. Multi-purpose cleaner: Use the soapberry liquid extract alone or combined with white vinegar and/or citrus extract and a little bit of water to create an effective general home cleaner that removes grease and combats bacterial growth on just about any type of surface, from windows to countertops, stoves and furniture.
7. Laundry Detergent: The simplest way to use soapberries is by throwing 5-8 of them into a muslin bag and adding them to your washer with your clothes. You may even want to cleanse your washer with a soapberry extract & white vinegar mixture to remove all harmful chemical residues before doing so.
8. Shaving soap: If you hate waste, you’ll love this shaving soap recipe! Simply take 10-15 of the soap nuts that are leftover after boiling them to create your soapberry extract, remove the seeds and the harder part of the shell and then pulse them in a food processor. Once you have a nice paste, add a touch of olive oil and some soapberry extract. This will create an easy to foam, non-toxic shaving soap that lathers beautifully.
9. Jewelry cleaner: Soak your jewelry in soapberry soap for half an hour and then scrub it clean and dry it off with a soft cloth to reveal its long-lost sparkle.
10. Insect repellant: Combine your soapberry extract in a spray bottle with one or more essential oils that are known insect repellants, such as citronella, lavender, peppermint, sage or thyme. If you don’t have access to the oils, don’t worry - the soapberry alone will also do a great job! Spray it on any exposed skin while outdoors or in a high-risk area and simply don’t wash it off.
Tree to Tub Soapberry products
As you may have guessed by now, we’re really big fans of the humble little soap nut. So much so in fact that we built an entire business around it.
At Tree to Tub, we’ve spent years perfecting our formulas and finding the best natural ingredients to combine with soapberry extract in order to create effective formulations for hair, body and face that are ideal for people with sensitive skin but also totally non-toxic for humans and the environment (as well as cruelty-free, vegan and fair-trade, just FYI).
Unlike homemade formulas, they’re also highly consistent and have become a tried and trusted solution for thousands of people. While we have nothing against DIYing it (in fact, we’re actually big fans), we also know that a lot of people simply don’t have the time, motivation or patience to make their own formulas and see a project through, quite literally, from tree to tub.
That’s why we’re happy to teach you how to make your own soapberry-based products. If you like the idea but never get around to actually doing it, we’ll be here.
If you’re looking to remove soap (especially the harmful chemical-laced kind) from your life, whether to protect your sensitive skin or the environment, there is no better solution than soap nuts.
It may seem nearly impossible to remove the most ubiquitous cleaning and personal hygiene product on Earth from your daily routine, but it turns out that soapberry soap, especially when combined with a few other basic natural ingredients, can replace everything from personal care products to laundry detergent, all-purpose cleaner and anything else you normally use true soap for.
With time and patience, you can even grow your own soapberry tree in your back garden and produce your own personal hygiene & cleaning products from scratch - in the process taking a giant leap towards being a truly self-sufficient and eco-friendly human.
One of Tree to Tub's founders taking the company concept quite literally and harvesting soapberries by hand.