Soap nuts were originally discovered and used by locals as a cleansing medium. They were primarily used for bathing and personal hygiene and a plethora of cleaning uses. They make an exceptional jewelry cleaner for example. Soap nuts were also used in numerous medicinal treatments and worked as an effective, yet safe, chemical-free pest repellent. These same uses prevail today – PLUS there is a long list of NEW uses in our modern age.
The botanical term Sapindus is derived from the Latin word “sapo” (soap) and (Indian) indicus, referring to its lather-producing fruit. It is this genus of tree that produces soap nuts – and there are many varieties. Saponin is found in many plants such as yucca, agave, soapwort, and others. What makes the soap nut SO special is their extraordinarily high concentration of saponin (the active ingredient and natural surfactant in soap nuts). Extracting enough saponin from other plants would simply not be feasible. However, Sapindus trees produce a fruit that not only makes it feasible, Sapindus trees make it easy AND SUSTAINABLE.
Soap nuts are a common name for the ripened and dried fruit harvested from a Sapindus tree. There are two primary species being harvested today: Mukorossi and Trifoliatus. Both are found mainly in Southeast Asia. Both are of the family Sapindaceae. I am often asked why does NaturOli use only Mukorossi soap nuts. The Mukorossi species consistently produces the highest level of saponin of the many soap berry varieties. Hence, consumers get the best possible experience from them. Also, other than Mukorossi and Trifoliatus there is no infrastructure and supply chain for the other varieties. When ordering tens of thousands of kilos, the Southeast Asian exporters are the only suppliers that can meet the demand. With time, increased consumer awareness, and increased demand this scenario will change. In decades to come, we will find suppliers in many regions around the Rocky, Andes, Sierra, Appalachian and other mountain ranges. Most likely it will be the Mukorossi variety being grown and harvested.
Sapindus Mukorossi is a large soapberry tree growing primarily in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains of China, northern India and Nepal. It is a prolific fruit producer and lives around ninety years. It is native to China and considered alien to the Doon Valley in India where it flourishes in poor soil conditions. It aids in the reducing soil erosion in these regions. The soap nut flowers are small, white and grouped in panicles (clusters). The fruits are round, yellowish berries that become gummy and wrinkled as they ripen. It produces large, colorful and glossy soapberries compared to other species. It is the most highly valued species.
Sapindus Trifoliatus is a smaller soapberry tree typically found in Southern India, Pakistan and numerous countries in Southeast Asia. It prefers lower altitudes and warmer climates. It produces a smaller soap nut (about half the size of the Mukorossi soap nut). It contains saponin as do all Sapindus fruits, however not as high of level as Mukorossi soap berries. Harvesting and de-seeding the smaller soap nuts is more difficult. Being sold by weight makes Trifoliatus less desirable in many ways. There is more work for the harvesters for less money. There is less money involved per kilo for the exporters. And they are of lower quality and effectiveness for the consumer. Trifoliatus soap nuts are certainly a valuable resource for saponin. HOWEVER, they are also the primary species sold deceptively to be its far superior cousin, the Mukorossi soap nut.
Local villagers, farmers, families and co-ops harvest the soap nuts after the fruit falls from the tree. Properly processed, the seeds are removed and the shells are dried in the sun. They are then sold to the exporters. Currently only about half of the Mukorossi soap nuts available are harvested annually. The rest go to waste. Harvesting provides an economic stimulus for these economically depressed regions. Increased global demand will provide additional stimulus and encourage more cultivation.
Many other varieties of these remarkable soap nut trees grow around the globe with differing data with regards to their fruits. There are actually many types of saponin, too – also with varying properties. We will be studying these soap nut varieties and their individual properties for many years to come. We have much to still learn. The consensus at NaturOli is that the further we drill into the benefits of soap nuts and saponin the more we continue to discover. Who knows how deep this rabbit hole goes?