Are they soap NUTS or soap BERRIES? A little botany:
Soap nuts are not “nuts”. Of course you can take that a few different ways, but I am referring to only the botany. A soap nut is not a nut at all. It is a berry – a fruit. This has confused many people. Most consumers have never seen a soapberry growing on the tree. Most only see the dried fruit. Being hard and crinkled it looks like a nut. It erroneously began being referred to as a soap nut, and the name stuck.
One can become very confused when trying to determine what is rightfully a “nut”. It is a very broad term. Using some definitions, a soapberry could be referred to as a nut or seed. Botanically speaking, a nut is a dried fruit with one seed. That fits for a soap nut. However, the BIG catch is that with a true NUT – the fruit cannot be separated from the seed. A freshly picked ripe soapberry will resemble a cherry. They vary from species to species, but they have a large single seed in each berry and a juicy pulp and skin. Of course, some can get nit-picky here because some nuts have shells, hence they can be separated. However, those “shells” were never a fruit-like pulp. They are woody – nothing like the pulp of a cherry. A soap nut is NOT a nut. It IS a fruit.
Even in India, the soapberry exporters refer to them as soap nuts because that is what most people call them. This does not help the situation. Most all sellers call them and brand them as “nuts”. It is common to see both the one and two word versions of each name to further complicate matters. As usual, the consumer is left confused. I use all the terms interchangeably mainly because “nuts” is so ingrained now, but would prefer for readers to think of them as berries. Again, think of them much like a cherry – a de-seeded (hopefully), dried cherry at the consumer level.
Many different species of soapberries grow around the globe. Simply visit Wikipedia searching under the genus sapindus for some of the many types of soapberries:
Be they shrubs or trees, we know that soapberries come from sapindus vegetation. We know the species differ significantly. A great deal more study is required to isolate all the differences.
Please be wary of what you read. As stated on Wikipedia, “Common names include soapberry and soapnut, both names referring to the use of the crushed seeds to make soap.” This statement is VERY misleading. It is not the crushed seed that produces soap. It is saponins (the natural substance within them) that produce soap. If it helps, think of saponins as soapberry juice. Saponin predominantly is derived from the pulp and skin of the fruit. The seeds have yet to be determined of significant value.
Personally, I feel much of the confusion is semantics. Much is written by those other than botanical experts and then copied and pasted over and over. I try to write to how I believe most of us think. Is a cherry a fruit or a seed? That depends upon HOW you think. However, most of us think of it as a fruit or berry. It has a big seed inside and we eat the pulp and skin. It is with THIS mindset that I describe soapberries.
I have read claims that soapberries are closely related to the goji berry or wolfberry. This is a little troubling for they VERY different in most of their characteristics. Goji berries are more similar to tiny tomatoes, and often are for culinary and nutritional use. They do not come from the same order of the plant kingdom – and you DO NOT want to eat soapberries.
One seller (that I am not yet permitted to disclose) will soon launch a massive campaign that may earmark a turning point. The soap nut may begin to become more rightfully known as a soapberry. In the meantime, don’t get confused. Regardless of the term, they are all a fruit, and there are different types that yield different results.
That is all that the average consumer NEEDS to know – for now.