Welcome to the first edition of Forager’s Corner. Starting on a monthly basis, and possibly growing to weekly, Forager’s Corner will provide fascinating information about useful plants native to California. You will be helped to locate, identify, harvest, and use each featured plant. This month, we’re talking about soaproot (chlorogalum pomeridianum).
While there are five species of soaproot (chlorogalum, also called soap plant or amole), the most common is c. pomeridianum, the California or wavy-leafed soaproot, and will be the subject of this edition of Forager’s Corner.
In late winter, the soaproot starts poking through the topsoil. The leaves grow from the top of the root bulb, and look very similar to young corn leaves. The leaves grow up to 27″ long, but average around 18″. The plant loves rocky soil, and tends to push itself up between large rocks. The bulbs are brown, typically 3-6″ diameter, and covered in thick, coarse fiber. Occasionally, several bulbs will grow close together, and form a large cluster.
Flowers grow from a long stem in late summer.
Fibers from the bulb were used to make brushes, by stripping the fibers from the bulb, boiling the bulb to release the juices from inside, binding the end of the fibers together, and finally using the extracted juice to form a handle on the brush. In some instances, pitch was used instead of the soaproot juice.
The bulb will also form a lather when crushed and mixed with water. Both natives (especially the Miwok tribe) and settlers would use the bulbs as a type of soap. It is especially useful as a shampoo, since it is believed to be effective against dandruff. This is the origin of the plant’s name.
Soaproot bulbs are edible, but they must be roasted, as they contain poisonous saponins, which are destroyed by cooking. Saponins are very poorly absorbed by the human body, and usually pass straight through, but it is safer to cook the bulbs than risk poisoning.
C. pomeridianum is native to California and Oregon. While it may be found in other areas, it is confined to western North America.