Far away, in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, Mother Nature has provided us a great treasure.
Soap nuts are known worldwide by many names such as soapnuts, soapberry, washing nuts, soap nut shells, wash shells, soapberry nut husk, Ritha (Hindi) nut shell, Chinese soapberry and many more. Very simply, soap nuts are the dried shells (or husks) from the soapberry (or soap berry nut). These berries are the fruit from a quite unique tree species. These shells contain a substance called saponin that produces a soaping effect. Saponin is a 100% natural alternative to chemical laundry detergent and cleansers. It can replace many chemical detergents such as those containing sodium laureth sulphate (SLS) that are becoming well known by consumers for being a skin irritant and health hazard.
Soap nuts have been used for centuries throughout the world as a laundry detergent, as soap for personal hygiene, and as a cleanser with a plethora of other uses. It is most commonly used in India, China, parts of Europe and numerous countries in the eastern hemisphere. There is even a species, Quillaja Saponaria (called a soap bark tree) that grows in South America. However, only in recent years has the soap nut and its many benefits made its way to the shores of the U.S.
The Trees and the Soapberry Nuts:
Sapindus (the botanical name) is a sustainable agriculture and forest product. In many ways it is similar to an olive tree. There are several common varieties of the soapberry tree. Sapindus Mukorossi and Sapindus Trifoliatus are the primary sources for the soapberry that has become know as the soap nut. They are both of the family Sapindaceae, and the genus Sapindus. The botanical name is derived from the Latin words, sapo (soap) and indicus (Indian).
Based upon its high amount of 'soap' content and consistency, the highest quality soap nut is Sapindus Mukorossi, which grows primarily in northern India and Nepal. It grows uncultivated in poor quality ground and helps fights erosion, particularly in the Himalayan foothills. It also provides needed income to the local population. It is a relatively hardy tree being resistant to diseases and insects. The tree grows to 10 to 20 meters in height and begins flowering and bearing fruit after about 9 years.
It blooms with small, white grouped flowers in spring and early summer and is harvested annually during the fall season. The soapberry fruits (the soap nut) are round yellow berries that become gummy, reddish tan and wrinkled as they ripen. Its appearance is somewhat like that of a date. The tree synthesizes its own natural saponins, (soap) which coat the shell of the fruit. The tree has great longevity and will produce fruit (soap nuts) for about 90 years.
Soap Nut Tree Species:
The Sapindus Mukorossi variety produces the most consistent quality of soap nuts of high saponin content. Sapindus Trifoliatus, which grows primarily in southern India, Indonesia and Pakistan, is a smaller tree producing smaller fruit that lack consistency and saponin content compared to Sapindus Mukorossi. The soap nuts from the Mukorossi tree are larger, brighter in color and gloss and are more effective in producing the 'soapy' effect. These soap nuts are typically exported from New Delhi (closer to their growth areas in the Himalayans). Soap nuts from the Trifoliatus tree are less desirable, of lower cost and are often exported from Indonesia. All soap nuts being marketed throughout the world contain the all-important saponins. Consistently high saponin content is the primary measure of quality. In this regard,Sapindus Mukorossi reigns supreme.
Note: Many other varieties of this remarkable tree grow around the world, including the U.S. (one notably called the Florida Soap Berry Tree). The data with regard to the effectiveness of their fruit as laundry detergent is limited and often conflicting. However, data consistently indicates that the Sapindus Mukorossi is the premier variety, and its fruit is the most cherished. To date, we have no knowledge of successful growth and harvests of Mukorossi outside its Asian origins. Albeit, there is no evidence that it cannot be cultivated elsewhere.
Harvesting Soap Nuts:
Local farmers and families harvest the prized soapberry fruit after it falls from the tree. The seed is removed from the shell (or husk), and the shells are dried in the sun using absolutely no chemical processing. No commercial manufacturing processes are required in any way for the soap nut to become effective. The soap nut shell is not altered in any way. Hence, soap nuts are absolutely 100% natural, unmodified dried fruit shells. Note: The actual nut (or better yet, seed) does not release saponin, hence has no cleaning properties. It is used for planting new trees and is sometimes used to make necklaces and other jewelry.