Indians use “soapberry” and “soapnut” interchangeably; however, some people may mistake “soapberry” for the small pink berries growing throughout parts of North America. Though these fruits also have high levels of saponin like soapnuts, they are quite a different fruit. The feature of this entry is the fruits of the Sapindus genus.
Origin of Soapberry
Soapberries are an ancient fruit, leaving some to claim the origin is China, while others state India. Though the indus in sapindicus may infer India, it’s disputed as to whether this term connotes the West Indies or even Native Americans, given its widespread use amongst this group in parts of North America.
However, ancient Indian texts make ample references to soapberries. For instance, the book, “Saint Heritage of India” points out that Hatha yoga founder Machindranath was converted under a sopanut tree some time during his life in the 9th to 10th century. The “Historical Dictionary of Ancient India” explains soapnuts were found in a monastic complex dating back to the 6th century BC, and a paper titled “Some Notes on the History of Soap Nuts, Soap and Washermen of India—between 300 BC and AD 1900” hints at even earlier roots.
Availability of Soapberry in India
Soapberries grow in several parts of India, from the far southern state of Kerala, to the northern regions of Rajasthan, and the eastern planes of the Himalayas. Additionally, a remarkable number of varieties grow in the country. Approximately 10 are of commercial significance.
Natually, different species grow in different regions. Sapindus emarginatus and Sapindus mukorossi, for instance, grow throughout Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Himachal Pradesh, and other states in the north and east of India. Sapindus laurifolia grows in the the north and east of the country, particularly Assam, West Bengal, and the Himalayas up to 1.2km. On the other hand, Sapindus trifoliatus is known as the “South Indian soapnut” and—as its name would suggest—grows in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Maharashtra.
Soapberries are harvested and collected during the winter months in India.
Where to find Soapberry in India
Soapberries are not sold like other fruits in produce stores. Instead, they are harvested for production of soap, laundry detergent, and shipped for use by cosmetics companies. The soapnuts are readily available for purchase online, mostly in their dried, de-seeded half shell form.
A few businesses in India offer ready-made soapberry products: Krya is one example of eco-friendly organization in Chennai dedicated to selling all-natural laundry detergent made from soap nuts:
|Krya soapnut detergent|
It is possible to forage for these fruits during the winter months, as they are ornamental trees in several urban cities and household gardens. Look for the tree’s smooth, pointed oblong leaves and grape-like green cluster of berries.
Checking for Ripeness in Soapberry
Soapberries begin as smooth, pale green fruits. As they ripen, they turn yellow and slowly wrinkle their way either a goldenrod yellow or a chocolatey brown.
Taste of Soapberry
Soapberries are far from appetizing—in their raw form, they taste bitter and highly astringent due to its 10-18% saponin content per fruit. While this is the compound responsible for its extensive medicinal benefits, foaming ability, and cleaning properties, it doesn’t make for the most palatable taste.
It’s best not to ingest the fruits or liquid extracts. The result will likely be an extremely sore, burned throat. While there seem to be no reported fatalities from ingestion, the fruit’s irritants are one reason why processors of soapnuts often wear masks to avoid breathing its caustic residue. As one would do for all cleaning solutions, place a label on jars containing soapnuts to avoid any mishaps.
Note: Though eating soapberries may create ill effects, soapberries themselves are hypoallergenic (read: skin-friendly) and nonabrasive. They are nontoxic as a cleanser, which is far better than what several industrialized household cleaners on the market can claim.
Benefits of Soapberry
Soapberries have many uses, including a few unconventional applications. According to the book, “Simple Ayurvedic Remedies,” a concoction of neem, soapberry, and oil and chitra prevents contraception when women apply the mix with a swab internally. Several books, including “Ayurvedic Massage,” advocate using soapberries after oil baths to promote hair health. The fruit also cuts through the oil’s grease. In China, the book, “Ethnopharmacology of Medicinal Plants” explains that soapnut pericarps are used for skin disease and to remove freckles and tans. The Burmese use the nuts to treat epilepsy, while Taiwan uses soapnut flowers to treat inflamed eyes.
Several studies reveal additional benefits of soapnuts:
--A 2003 study published in “Contraception” advocates using saponin extracts from soapnuts in spermicidal preparations, thanks to its additional antibacterial, nontoxic health benefits.
--An additional 2002 study published in the “Asian Journal of Andrology” found that ingesting soapnut water extract did not reduce the number of sperm, but its motility (ability to maneuver towards the egg) was significantly inhibited.
--A 2011 study published in “Complementary and Alternative Medicine” found that soapnut extracts fought vaginal candida species, thus offering a potential nontoxic remedy against yeast infections.
--Though it’s not advised to eat soapnuts directly, a 2002 study published in the “Journal of Ethnopharmacology” found that leaf and fruit extracts had anti-gastric, anti-ulcer potential.
--A 2008 study in “World Journal of Gastroenterology” found that dried powder extract from soapnuts had a protective effect against liver injuries when tested in rats.
--A 2001 Japanese study published in “Natural Medicine” found that soapnuts contain potent antimicrobial activities against a number of common dermatophytes, thus indicating a number of strong skin health benefits.
How to Open/Cut:
Harvesting the fruits usually entails climbing up the trunk and beating the soapberry branches with a long stick—the ripe ones will fall to the ground, ready for collection. Once harvested in this ripened state, the fruits must be de-seeded and dried. Nuts are sometimes pulverized into a powder, depending on its end use.
Here’s a video showing the harvesting and processing of the fruits in Nepal. It’s a highly labor-intensive, incredible collective effort:
Soap nuts absorb moisture quite easily, and should therefore be kept in a dry, airtight container. This is true of any soapberry derivatives such as dried fruit and powders. Dried soapberries keep for several months.
How to use Soapnuts:
If interested in buying a bag of dried, de-seeded half shells of soapberries, consider the following applications:
--For use in laundry detergent, toss 5 shells in a knotted drawstring bag (or even a sock) and add to the washer.
Make soapberry liquid for use in dishwashing soap and cleaners. Krya CEO Srinivas suggests soaking soapnuts overnight, then soaking in hot water for 15 minutes the following day. Squeeze the fruits until they become gray, which is the sign that the saponins have been removed. Strain the liquid and transfer to an air-tight container. Refrigerate the liquid, and it will keep for a month.
--Use the liquid as a shampoo, though you might have to have two or three applications in one shower to experience lathering effects.
--Use some liquid to clean countertops, adding some vinegar and essential oils to the mix.
--Make a facewash from the liquid. Consider adding a few drops of coconut oil, another well-known antimicrobial and antifungal.
It’s possible to grind soapberries into a powder using a mixie or coffee grinder. Finer powder isn’t necessarily better, and in fact, coarser powder increases the soap’s longevity. Use soapberry powder in the following ways:
----Mix with a bit of water as jewelry cleaner. According to the book, “The Healing Power of Gemstones,” jewelers used to clean delicate pearls in a mixture of water and soapnuts.
--Use soapnut powder to clean and remove pesticide residue from fruits and veggies.
--Add a few tablespoons as a dishwashing detergent, as it’s especially effective when the powder gets added with some water to pots with difficult-to-clean residue.
Note: the soapnut residue may be composted, so do not discard immediately. In fact, saponin in soapnuts acts as a mild insecticide.
Soapberry isn’t just a valuable cleaning agent: According to the book, “Life Science: Vol. 2,” the photo film industry uses 6 tonnes of the fruit every year.
In parts of eastern Nepal, children use soapberries as marble and jack substitutes; and in the west Himalayas, children wore ankle bracelets made from seeds are encrusted in gold and silver to ward off the evil eye.
Another fruit containing saponin is longan. This is one reason why, in a pinch, the fruit’s seeds can double as soapnuts.
Phenil, risht, rishak, ritha (Hindi)
Hai kya kekru (Manipuri)
Phenil, ritha (Urdu)
Phenil, risht, rishak (Hindi)
Phenil, ritha (Marathi)
Punalai, punthi (Tamil)
Distant relatives of soapberries are fruits in the Sapindacae family, which include lychee, longan, rambutan, mamoncillo, and ackee.
Complete list of fruits here