So much more than a delicate wildflower, this plant deserves its four names: ‘wavy leaf soap plant,” “soap root,” “amole,” and Chlorogalum pomeridianum or “afternoon blooming green milk.” And it’s a member of the lily family as well.
Common in California and Oregon grasslands, chaparral, and woodlands below 5000 feet in elevation, the soap plant blooms from early spring into summer with small (half an inch to one inch) flowers that open into six slender white petals surrounding six yellow-tipped stamens and a central style. They bloom atop long spindly stalks that can get up to six feet tall. Listen for the hum of large native carpenter bees and bumblebees that pollinate the plant while supping on its sweet nectar.
Fist-sized, brown, and hairy, this bulb is the business end of the soap plant for humans. Crushing the white inner layers of the bulb produces juice that foams easily with water due to organic compounds called saponins. Native Americans used soap root to wash their hair and bodies, their clothing, and buckskin blankets. Spanish settlers called it “amole” which is a generic term for a plant-derived soap. But who would eat a plant that makes soap? We have one story from the diary of a survivor of the ill-fated Donner Party in 1847. “Solitary Indian passed by yesterday come from the lake had a heavy pack on his back gave me 5 or 6 roots resembling Onions in shape taste some like a sweet potato, all full of little tough fibres.” Native Americans knew that the leaves and bulbs harvested in early spring and slow roasted overnight in pit ovens made delicious eating.
Roasting also thickened the juice into a glue that could be used for sealing baskets, attaching feathers to arrows, and making brushes from the outer fibers of the bulb. The juice would tan hides and made medicines like antiseptics, laxatives, diuretics, and pain-relieving body rubs. Green milk from the leaves could be made into tattoo ink.
Mashed soap root bulbs even helped Native Americans catch fish. They built netlike weirs across streams, and tossed mashed bulbs into the water. The saponins in the juice briefly stunned the fish which then floated to the surface. No, the fish didn’t taste soapy and the saponins passed harmlessly through the human digestive system.
It is now illegal to use poisons for fishing, but there are other reasons to respect the ubiquitous soap plant. For one thing it takes about ten years to grow from seed to plant. While you may be tempted to try making your own soap or lunch or glue or medicine, remember that it is illegal to harvest or collect any plants in California State Parks.