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Medicinal Plants of the SW - Sapindus saponaria


 Sapindus saponaria

Taxonomy: Sapindaceae, Magnoliophyta, Magnoliopsida, Sapindales

Common name: soapberry

 by Alice Nevarez Fall 2000 and Ricky D. Cox Spring 2000

 Botanical Morphology

The wood of a soapberry is strong and close grained, making the tree very wind resistant. The bark of the Sapindus saponaria is grayish-brown and thin, fissured into long narrow plates that often break up to create a decorative patchwork of reddish-brown and gray. The twigs and small branches are yellow-green and downy in color, and often assume zigzag appearance. The leaves are large, languid, and pinnately compound. The leaflets are neither truly odd pinnate nor even pinnate, but opposite leaflets usually slightly offset up the rachis so that the apical leaflet may be absent


   Soapberry flowers are small and usually whitish, in broad many flowered panicles with 4-5 sepals and petals. Flowers bloom in late spring, and form large, dense, intensely, fragrant terminal clusters. The clusters mature into strange amber-bead, translucent yellow fruit, about ½ inch in diameter with one to three seeds inside. The fruit, also known as a modified drupe remains on the tree through most of winter, and its yellowish flesh finally turns brownish-black. The seeds are black in color with an egg-shaped appearance.

 Habitat and Geographics

Sapindus saponaria is a common indigenous plant and ranges in habitat from Southern Arizona, south into Mexico, through all of Southern New Mexico, and east into Southern Missouri and Western Arkansas. Soapberry is usually found in elevations between to 2,500 to 6,500 feet. It's preferred growing conditions are unpredictable due to the fact that it is found in arid hills, valleys, grasslands, oak woodlands and mountainsides. Soapberry is found to be quite competitive since it is very tolerant of soils with limited moisture and low fertility.


Soapberry reproduces by sexual reproduction. Most plants in the Sapindaceae are dioecious; however, in Sapindus saponaria one sex tends to dominate on an individual basis. Although monoecious, they are often referred to as "functionally dioecious". Soapberry can be propagated by seed or softwood cuttings. The seeds have a double dormancy, which can be overcome by scarification with sulfuric acid, and followed by a cold period of 60-90 days.

 Medicinal and Non-Medicinal Uses

Soapberry can be beneficial in many ways. The drupes, which lather when combined with water, were once used in varnish, floor was, and soap. In some parts of Mexico soapberry is still preferred for washing hair and delicate clothing, even after the introduction of commercial soaps. Pounded fruits from the soapberry are used in Africa to poison fish without altering their taste.

 As an ornamental the uniqueness of the fruit and bark sell themselves, besides the fact that Sapindus saponaria is virtually pest free, and provides a superb canopy as a patio or backyard shade tree. Soapberrry also provides for several medicinal uses. It is in fact one of our better acute arthritis remedies for internal use. As a soap it also has medicinal effects, helping to relieve itching and prevent the spread of various tineas and scalp seborrhea.



The benefits of the native Sapindus saponaria have proved remarkable through the years. Natives have used soapberry as soap, for medicinal purposes, and decorative ornamentals, among many other uses. The greatest limitation to the success of soapberry and other native plants, however, may be the uneducated public. People need to learn to use, protect, and value native plants.

Epple. Field Guide to the Plants of Arizona. Falcon Press, 1995.
Kearney and Peebles. Arizona Flora. Univ. of California Press, 1951.
Millspaugh. American Medicinal Plants. Dover Publications, New York, NY., 1974.


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Updated February 13, 2008

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