Soap nuts (the natural detergent that actually is found growing on trees) are not nuts at all. They are actually a fruit most commonly referred to as a soapberry. Now, that had to sound really weird, huh? It’s no wonder people are confused. I just referred to a detergent as a fruit. Jugs and bottles certainly don’t grow on trees. And also, I certainly would not call wine a grape. Are you confused? I would be. It is my hope that this article clarifies what soap nuts actually are. As your understanding grows, such seemingly stupid statements will actually begin to make sense. I’ll give it a good college try to help clarify matters for you.
Again, soap nuts are a fruit. They produce a substance that is a natural detergent (or soap). It is called saponin. Sapo is actually Latin for soap. There are numerous botanical sources for saponin. What makes the soap nut so special is its extremely high concentration of saponin. It is the saponin that is Mother Nature’s own natural surfactant that effectively acts in the exact same way as a chemical detergent or soap.
Important break: “What the heck is a surfactant?” Excellent question! I’m so glad someone asked!
sur-fac-tant n. A substance or agent, for example, a detergent or a drug, that reduces the surface tension of liquids so that the liquid spreads out, rather than collecting in the form of droplets. Bulk Nuts
All detergents and soaps are essentially surfactants. It is surfactants that allow for the break up of dirt, grime, oil, grease, etc. in water – and thus enables things to be washed and become cleaned. It’s really that simple. (There are some minor exceptions but this is the KEY thing to realize about how detergents and soaps work.) It is just the fact that most surfactants – that we know of – have come out of chemical labs rather than grown by Mother Nature. I assure you they are not picking fruit at Procter and Gamble. At least not when making detergent. I bet this is beginning to make sense.
Somewhere throughout the ages people started calling the dried soapberries “nuts”. Why? Because they feel and look more like a nut than anything else. They are hard and dry (when they are ready for use) and even a nut-like color. If you picked one up off the ground, your first guess would be: “some kind of nut.” So, there you go. The rest is history. When growing on the tree, soap nuts remind me most of a cherry given their large seed size relative to its pulp and skin. As they are dried in the sun, they become wrinkled and then look reminiscent of a date or an overgrown (big time) raisin – just drier and harder. During their first couple months they will be yellowish to golden in color. As they age they will redden in color. As time continues, they will simply darken and shrink a bit in size. If properly stored in a cool dry environment they can last for years. As with nearly all dried natural or organic fruits, vegetables, etc., if they are not stored properly and allowed to become moist they will blacken and even grow molds. I would not recommend them at that point. (So much for common sense.)