Saponaria officinalis was brought to us by the colonists from Europe many years ago, and today it has spread across the entire United States. Many folks call it soapwort, but in the mountains of southeast Kentucky we called it Bouncin' Bet. When I see that name written I always want to fix it so that it reads Bouncin' Bett, because I cannot look at it without thoughts of Aunt Bett bouncing through my mind. You see, my first really serious encounter with Aunt Bett, aside from the occasional bout with croup, was the year I had polio and was expected to die.
I was not quite 4 years old, and in the summer of that year an epidemic spread through the hollows where I lived. It was late summer, and my mother had already started teaching in the little school up the road from my Granny Ninna's house. Mom had brought me to Ninna's to spend the day, but I suddenly had a fierce fever, and by the end of the day, I was unable to walk. They sent for the doctor who always made house calls in those days, and he said the dreaded word: poliomyelitis. They bundled me up that evening and took me to the nearest hospital, but the rooms were full, and the exam proved no difference. Poliomyelitis. In 1946 there was no cure.
Before you get all upset, let me assure you that this is a gentle story, and it surely has a happy ending, so don't go away just yet. They took me back to Granny Ninna's house because it was closest to Aunt Bett and because my mother knew she was going to need help caring for me. I don't remember much about the first few days, but I do know that Aunt Bett and Ninna sat vigil all day and all night. The truth is, most of the family expected me to die, but not my little old ladies. But dying must have entered into my mind somehow because I also remember waking up to sunshine one day and wondering if I was in heaven. Truthfully, I was paralyzed from the waist down, and normally polio crept upward as well as downward on little bodies, but not with those guardian angels watching over me. I think Ninna and Aunt Bett would have fought tooth and nail to save me. And they might have. It took more than a year, but I was able to walk when I entered first grade, and to later follow Aunt Bett all over the mountains around us.
I tell you all of this because the only detail I remember vividly was the baths I received from Granny Ninna or Aunt Bett several times a day for months. They chopped up a plant and covered it with water, and heated it in a pan on the kitchen stove. One of them would bring it to my bedside steaming hot, then strain the hot water into a washpan that had painted roses on it. Enough cold water was added to cool it, and then a soft washrag was swished around to make soapy suds. I loved those warm baths, though I could not feel them on my legs. They washed me all over, ears, nose, hair, fingers, all of me was covered in those warm soapy suds, which by the way, were not rinsed off, but simply dried off. I can remember being lowered into that soapy water, tiny as I was I could fit the lower half of me in that wash pan, and while my legs soaked, Ninna kept her arm around my back to hold me upright. The plant they used was called soapwort, or Bouncin' Bett.
Now my mom would stand around my bed and cry, I didn't see much to cry about as I remember, I got icecream and lots of orange juice, and two little old ladies at my beck and call. They read me stories, made up stories to tell me, helped me cut out paper dolls from the Sears and Roebuck catalog, and taught me to play checkers. But my mother cried a lot. Finally when I didn't die after a few months, Aunt Bett and Ninna decided it was time to exercise my legs which had yet to move. They would wash me all over with that special soap, sit me up to soak, dry me off, cover me in a flannel gown and stand me up beside the bed. And I would slither like jello to the floor. Mom in the corner moaning, "Lawdy, Lawdy", and Aunt Bett saying, "Shush up, Doris, you're scarin' this baby girl", and Granny Ninna whispering, "Yes you will walk, little one, yes you will walk."
And so I did, and still do to this day. Do I give credit to soapwort, well of course not, it didn't hurt my recovery, but it is not a cure for polio. I do give credit to two lovely ladies who never gave up and exercised my legs daily while every one else was waiting for me to die. On the other hand, soapwort is an interesting medicinal plant. You might like to know a little of its history and that bit of history will give you an idea why it might have helped my paralyzed legs move again.
Bouncin Bet came to us from across the ocean. It is from the carnation family, and is often called Sweet William or Garden Phlox. It grows in cool places, along shoulders of highways, and in hedgerows. It does need contact with water to prosper. It has had various uses since the time of Dioscorides, a Greek physician during the time of the Roman Empire. He was born in the first century AD, and during his life he wrote a 5 volume book entitled De Materia Medica, a precursor to all modern pharmacopeias. In it he mentions Saponaria.
It blooms from May through September in my region, and its roots, from which the soap comes, contain a toxic substance called saponin. Mix it with a little water, and it lathers. The plant also had other uses besides soap. The rhyzome was collected in fall and dried, it was used as an expectorant, a laxative, a detergent, and a purgative. It was also used for skin diseases and for arthritic conditions. The saponins are a strong irritant which stimulates a cough reflex, so it was often used to loosen a dry cough, bronchitis and asthma. It was carefully monitered however, because if used as an expectorant or a laxative, an overdose could cause nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.
It was used as a treatment for certain skin conditions, eczema, psoriasis, acne, boils, gout, and arthritis. Textile restorers currently use Saponaria which has been boiled in lime free water to clean old fragile fabrics, and it also can be used as a gentle wash for damaged hair and sensitive skin. In the Swiss Alps, sheep used to be washed in it before they were shorn. Early settlers used it as a wash to counter a poison ivy rash. The best soap is obtained when infusing the plant in warm water.
Scientists tell us that the plant can be poisonous and if used indiscriminately can destroy red blood cells. I would suggest that you never use this perennial herb for anything except soap or as a soothing wipe for your skin. I don't think that Aunt Bett used it for anything but a wash when she treated my polio legs and when she was giving folks an ointment or a wash to treat arthritis and rheumatism.
No, Bouncin' Bet didn't cure me, but I think Bouncin' Bett and Granny Ninna played a mighty big part in my ability to walk again. If you read carefully, the wash from this perennial was used for arthritis and rheumatism, not internally, but externally just as Aunt Bett used it on my legs. I don't know....maybe it was meant to be. I sure am glad it worked for me.
Photos are from Plant Files, thanks to these photographers: PoppySue, chaosmosis, Gabrielle and Jackieshar.
And thank you, Aunt Bett and Granny Ninna for caring and for teaching.