Sustainable Soap that Grows on Trees

Soapnuts or soapberries (credit:Wikipedia)

At first I thought it was a joke. But there really is a soap-growing tree! In fact, other plants also produce natural detergent, but today’s focus is on the soapberry or soapnut tree from India, which produces nuts (actually berries) that contain saponins to make soap.

A few years ago I researched these trees and their berries. The most popular way to use them is as laundry detergent, although they can be used for other cleaners as well. Imagine completely natural detergent that leaves no chemical residues in clothing. Whether or not we are obviously allergic to chemicals producing suds, fragrance or preservatives, our health is impacted by what we wear. Chemical residues enter our bloodstream through the skin. What we wear can literally become a part of us. 

For this reason and to save money, many have started formulating their own detergents. Many recipes are available online, but I am happy to say I don’t need to cook or mix up large batches of homemade detergents because I use these awesome little berries! Lehman’s sells small quantities of them, but I found Virgin Green Products has the best price, and they faithfully remove the seeds.

Here is how it works: you place five soapnuts into the provided little cotton bag with a drawstring, enough for five loads of laundry. Hot water releases the detergent, so most people simply throw the bag into the washer with the clothing until it’s finished. It does not need to be removed during the rinse cycle as it actually softens the clothing and eliminates the need for fabric softeners as well.

Pieces of soapberries (equivelant of five whole ones) are placed into the little cotton bag

Soapnuts work well with HE washers because they don’t produce a lot of suds. Of course the warranty may be voided if they’re not approved by the manufacturer, as it is with other homemade detergents. I’m happy to be free of that problem with my old top-loading washer bought through Craig’s List for $65. It beats doing laundry by hand like we did the first six months after moving here. 🙂

We're glad to NOT be doing laundry by hand anymore, but glad we have experience doing it so we are ready if the need arises.

For cold water wash use our method, as follows. We bring about a cup of water to a boil, remove from heat and place the little cotton bag of soapnuts into the hot water to steep for about eight minutes. While waiting we collect and sort laundry and fill the washer. We remove the bag from the hot water and place the soapnut “tea” into the washer. After washing and line-drying, our clothing is clean and soft, using no fabric softeners or harsh chemicals.

Our little soapnut "tea" pot

After five or six washes the soap nuts get really limp and should be removed from the little cloth bag and composted. Five fresh berries in the bag make you ready for five or six more washes. Store extra berries in an airtight container or bag so they won’t absorb moisture.

For two years soapnuts have been our laundry detergent and, yes, our clothes get clean. 🙂 As with any laundry detergent we use spot cleaners on soiled clothing before washing. For heavily soiled loads or those needing disinfecting we add natural whiteners, disinfectants, or deodorizers (peroxide, vinegar, peppermint essential oil, and/or baking soda). The biggest problem is the high level of iron in our water. A few drops of Shaklee Basic H helps “soften” and “wet” the water. I want to experiment with baking soda to see if it does the same. The mineralized water makes our whites murky, and I’m looking for a solution. When our rainwater collection system is completed we can use rainwater for whites.

Our line-dried clothes are not stiff...because of soapnuts

Of course I want a soapnut tree in my yard! Imagine picking soap off a tree and never buying cleaners or detergents again. Ha! Well, that poses a few challenges as it is a very tropical tree and takes five to ten years to produce berries. I have seeds and hope to plant some in an area protected from frost (our greenhouse?), but the long wait feels a bit discouraging. Meanwhile we purchased a huge box of soapberries to last many years before needing the tree. They have a long shelf life sealed in plastic.

The economical benefits are great as well. When we bought the large box of soapnuts from Virgin Green Products a few years ago we got 12 bags for much less per bag than buying a single bag. Today I was quoted $15.95/bag for 12 bags, rather than the normal $27.95 each, a 43% savings! Add $13-$30 for shipping, depending on where you live, and it’s up to $18/bag. One bag lasted us a year and a half which is about $12/year. Not bad. The description says a one kilo bag washes 330 loads, which is a low estimate in our experience. HE washers do even better. We have enough laundry detergent to last us 15 years as we’re only on our second bag! Maybe I’ll do a give-away to share my surplus. 🙂

If you must have lots of suds or fragrances (made by chemical additives) that modern detergents have, soapnuts are not for you. With soapnuts your clothes get clean and smell fresh, but you won’t see a lot of soapy suds and your clean clothes will not have a fragrance. But if you want to avoid unhealthy chemicals, save money, protect the environment, and live sustainably, you’ll want to give them a try!

A 2.2lb (1 Kilo) bag of soapnuts...also pictured is mineral salt deoderant that we use

Soapnuts can also be used for household cleaners and hand, hair or body washing. We successfully tried all those for six months. But hot weather turns it rancid after a week or two. Here in hot Florida that meant making new batches regulary. With a family of eight, refilling all soap and cleaning spray bottles every week felt big. In the fridge it keeps longer. But who wants cold soap or shampoo? For now we use it only for laundry, knowing there are other options if hard times come.

After writing this post I thought to myself that I should become an affiliate of Virgin Green Products, since I can honestly highly recommend their soapnuts and other green products. Sooooo, I applied just today (Wednesday the 20th) and I am now an official affiliate. Products purchased by going to their site through my links will earn me a commission! If you do so, I thank you in advance, and hope they do as well for you as they’ve done for me.


Bug out Bags

Bug out Bags

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25 thoughts on “Sustainable Soap that Grows on Trees

  1. I appreciate the information about how frost sensitive soapnut trees are. I was considering planting a few last year in pots to bring in during a freeze, but if it takes so long for them to bear the nuts, they would be way too big! I did buy a bag of soapnuts to try, though 🙂


  2. I actually heard they do better in cold water because they last longer? I was wondering where you learned that they have to be used in hot water (in some form) to release the soapin? tia


  3. There seems to be so much information out there about soapnuts or soapberries. They types of trees etc. I’ve been doing some of the research. But you know…’if it’s on the internet, then it MUST be true, right?’
    So, I’ve been reading your blog for a while…and trust what you say about the soap berries.
    My question is… have you seen or heard of the WESTERN SOAPBERRY ? apparently native to Texas. Said to be poisonous if eaten.
    I have these all over our property…and it is said, they produce the same soap as the one you’ve talked about here in this article.

    Any tips, ideas, how to dry and use these would be appreciated.
    I should like to make a cotton drawstring bag like yours and try them out.



    • I’m with you about internet “truth.” 🙂 I don’t know anything about the western soapberry, but understand that we have native trees and plants that contain saponin as well. I don’t know how they compare, but it would be worth a try. I think God gives each climate everything we need if we just learn how to recognize and use it. If I were you I’d dehydrate some of the berries, remove the seeds, and use them the same way and see how they work.

      Here’s an idea if you’d like: I’ll send you some of my soapnuts and you send me some of your berries, and we’ll each compare and see how they work! If we can grow the same thing here it would obviously be much more sustainable than using an imported product. If you are interested in my idea, email me using the contact form on the contact page.

      Thanks so much for sharing!


    • Hey Pat, I just got done researching your Western soapnut tree (Sapindus drummondii) and other native varieties, and discovered that we have several! There is even a Florida or tropical soapnut tree (Sapindus saponaria)! And one native for northern FL up through the Carolinas (Sapindus marginatus)! Why didn’t I check into that before? By the looks of things the berries of all these varieties can be used in the same way as those on the tree from India. The pictures look identical. Now I must find seeds for the ones that are native to our area so they are easier to grow. Thank you so much for bringing this up!!


      • I’ve sent you an email and would love to swap these with you… maybe you can grow some where you are!

        I’m also posting pictures on my blog of some soap nuts that were caught on the branches of last years crop. I’m positive this is the Western Soap Berry.

        I forget to come back to some blogs and read the replies there…That is why it took me days to get back to you. Thank you so much for your reply…
        blessings, Pat


  4. Great post! I’ve actually been using soap nuts for 2 years now and get so excited about telling people about them…then totally unable to answer their questions about how they work etc. Super exciting about growing the trees too–where did you get seed for that?


    • Thanks for sharing, Beth. I got my seed from Green Virgin Products where I order soapnuts. I asked them if they had any and they threw in a handfull with my order. Now that I’ve done more research I think I’ll try to get some for the variety that would be native to our area (see comment replies to Pat).


    • That is interesting about Yucca. We have two daughters adopted from Liberia where they call it cassava. Our 13 yr old remembers eating a lot of the roots made into something called fu-fu. I know it has to be cooked a lot to remove toxins from it before it is eaten. But I didn’t know it had “soap” in it. We have some growing in our yard! We’ll have to try it out. Thanks for sharing.


  5. I’m experimenting to day with the laundry…
    in your picture of ‘steeping the bag’ I can the bottom of your pan…does the water change color? Or remain clear?

    Mine isn’t changing. Going ahead with the first load. I’ll let you know how it goes!


    • When making soapnut “tea” the water usually turns light brown like an herbal tea (mint?). One way you can test to see if they’re good is to put them in a jar with warm water and shake. It should make some suds. If not, perhaps the saponins got washed out in the rain and weather. Also, if you steep them and then squeeze the water out of the bag it usually produces suds. They may not be good anymore.

      Thanks for updating me!


    • Hello again Pat. I am finally responding! It’s been a busy spring. I did get your little berries and tried them, but they don’t seem to resemble the soapnuts I use. Silver Oak is a landscaper and he recognized the berries as Chinaberries, which according to my research is another name for the western soapnut tree.

      Your berries are much smaller as you already mentioned, and I could produce no lather. I tried removing the shell from the seed inside to no avail, so just ended up cutting it off with a knife.

      But I would not give up hope yet. Perhaps there is a method of removing the shell from the seed when they are fresher…will have to research that. Possibly fresher dried berries will work. These have been out in the rain and weather and maybe the saponin was all washed out. Of course because of their small size you would need to use many more berries for the same effect.

      When you get a new “crop” and try them, let me know what happens. Meanwhile I have soaked several of my soapnut seeds 24 hrs in hot water with hopes they will germinate and I can grow the India variety. Of course I will have to wait for 5-10 yrs for berries!


  6. This is awesome, I’ve never heard of these! I planned to stop using my dryer this summer for the first time, now I think I’ll order a bag of these as well. Thanks for the information and I’ll be sure to click thru your links when I order.


  7. I’m thinking about what you said about the homemade personal products being made from these and how quickly they will become rancid. Is that taking into consideration the homemade preservatives like Vit E? I think I want to try using these and laundry will be a huge help, but I know me and I would be yearning to try to make body wash and shampoo with them–but not if I have to do it every week or so. Thanks for any information that you may provide.


    • I think it would be very worthwhile to try using vitamine E, or perhaps grapefruit seed extract, or some essential oils that have preserving qualities. I cannot find any info on the subject, but there has to be a way. I am just now learning to make my own soaps and beauty products so I am not the best one to ask, but I would love to know the same. I read about taking the little cotton bag of soapnuts and rubbing it between your hands under the warm shower water till you work up a lather. You could work the lather into your hair for shampoo. It may be worth a try.


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