I’ve always had long hair, from childhood to motherhood. At times my hair has been past my waist, though I keep it about mid-back length now. In an effort to break my dependence upon store-bought goods, I’ve tried many homemade shampoo recipes. I’ve even tried the no-poo thing. Most of the recipes I’ve used require herbs and some sort of soap base, which usually works pretty well. I can grow most of the herbs myself, such as calendula, comfrey, chamomile, rosemary, lavender, etc. But I’ve often wondered what I would do if I couldn’t get my hands on stuff like castile soap and jojoba oil.
What did Native Americans, pioneer women, and ancient civilizations use? (These peoples have gained my utmost respect as I continue to learn how they survived without modern conveniences.)
I’ve been doing some research on how women (and men) in past times would have washed and cared for their long hair. Not surprisingly, most of what was used came from parts of plants. Many wild botanicals have saponins which will create a nice lather when rubbed in a little water. Here are a few you might be interested in trying to find growing wild or perhaps even growing yourself.
“WavyLeafedSoapPlant” by Original uploader was Seglea at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transfer was stated to be made by User:Rockfang.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
Chlorogalum pomeridianum, also referred to as “wavy leaf soap plant”, Soap Plant or Soaproot. Amole is native to the West Coast of the United States, growing from Oregon to California, including the Sierra Nevada foothills. This perennial is said to be hardy from zones 6a to 10b.
Both the Indians and the early pioneers used it as a soap. They stripped the fibrous brown coating from the raw bulbs, used a rock to crush the bulbs into a pulp, then scooped up the mashed pulp and agitated it in a little water to make a nice lather. You can also peel the white root and rub several layers in water to form a froth. It can be used as full body soap, a gentle laundry detergent, dish washing liquid, and as a shampoo for soft and silky hair.
Another interesting thing Amole has been used for by Native Americans is to stun or poison fish. Which is now illegal, by the way.
“Cucurbita foetidissima compose” by Photographs: Up, from left to right: Paigeblue08, Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble, “Photography by Curtis Clark”, “Copyright by Curtis Clark”. Middle: Paigeblue08. Bottom left: CharleBernardo. Bottom right: Paigeblue08. Montage by RoRo – Top, left to right: File:Cucurbita foetidissima, gourd close up.jpg File:Calabaza (wild gourd) Cucurbita foetidissima in Embudo Canyon (7897313046).jpg File:Cucurbita foetidissima fruit 2003-02-04.jpg File:Cucurbita foetidissima staminate flower 2003-05-19.jpg Middle: File:Cucurbita foetidissima (whole plant).jpg Bottom left: File:Cucurbita foetidissima – inside view.jpg Bottom right is a detail from the photograph in the middle.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
Cucurbita foetidissima, also known as calabazilla, chilicote, coyote mellon, fetid gourd, fetid wild pumpkin, Missouri gourd, prairie gourd, stinking gourd, wild gourd, and wild pumpkin. Buffalo Gourd is native to the southwestern region of the United States and the northwestern part of Mexico. This perennial can be found growing wild in Arizona, Arkansas, southern California, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, southern Nebraska, southern Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, southern Utah, and Mexico.
Historically, the roots and outer shell of the Buffalo Gourd fruits have been used for their saponins. When crushed and agitated in water they make a cleansing lather which can be used as hand and laundry soap and shampoo. The leaves can also be cut and rubbed in water to produce a green frothy lather. Southwestern tribes used the leaves of Buffalo Gourd to wash their clothes. Be forewarned, some people experience irritation from the tiny hairs on the plant.
This gourd actually has several pretty cool uses. It can be eaten like squash when it’s young, the seeds produce a large amount of oil which can be used as biodiesel, the leaves make excellent animal fodder, and it has been used medicinally for veterinarian purposes. You can read more about Cucurbita foetidissima at Wikipedia.
“Yucca elata blooming” by Stan Shebs. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yucca_elata_blooming.jpg#/media/File:Yucca_elata_blooming.jpg
Yucca elata, also known as soaptree, soaptree yucca, soapweed, and palmella. This perennial grows native to the southwestern US, mainly western Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, southern Nevada, southwestern Utah, and northern Mexico. They prefer dry, semi-desert conditions; grows in USDA hardiness zones 9-11.
Yucca was a very important plant for the Ancestral Pueblo people because of its many uses. The roots and inner part of the trunk were peeled and pounded to produce a sudsy pulp. The pulp was mixed with water and used for soap or shampoo. Legend says that washing your hair with yucca shampoo makes the hair strands stronger. It was also used to treat dandruff and prevent baldness.
Alternatively, instead of digging up the root of a yucca to make soap I have read that you can cut off one leaf of the plant, strip it into fibers, and agitate them in water to make a lather. This way you don’t kill the whole plant to make a wash. The soap is slightly less lathery than what you’d get from the root, but it’s said to still work well.
Native Americans also used the fibers from the leaves to make sandals, belts, cloth, baskets, cords mats, dental floss, yucca ropes, and many other things.
“Ceanothus americanus” by United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge: Ceanothus americanus L.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ceanothus_americanus.jpg#/media/File:Ceanothus_americanus.jpg
Ceanothus species, also known as California lilac, wild lilac, and soap bush. This genus only grows in North America, with the bulk of wild plants growing indigenous in California. Most mountain lilacs grow well in hardiness zones 8-10.
The Chumash used the flowers of the mountain lilac as a natural soap by rubbing a teaspoon amount of blossoms in their hands with a little water until a lather was formed.
By early summer the blossoms will fall off the plant and will be replaced by sticky green fruits. These too can be rubbed with a little water to make a lather. You can also harvest these fruits and dry them to use later. They will harden over time so you’ll need to soak them in some water to soften them before use.
“Chenopodiumcalifornicum” by Unknown – http://www.nps.gov/samo/naturescience/wildflowers%2Ehtm?eid=105281&aId=58&root_aid=58&sort=title&startRow=169#e_105281. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chenopodiumcalifornicum.jpg#/media/File:Chenopodiumcalifornicum.jpg
Chenopodium californicum or Blitum californicum (syn.), this flowering plant in the amaranth family is also known by the common names California Goosefoot and Indian lettuce. As it’s name indicates, this herbaceous perennial grows native in California though it can be grown in most areas of the western US.
Soaproot has a long taproot, similar to a carrot, reaching up to a foot in length. Grate the root with a potato peeler or knife, then rub the peelings in a little water to make a lather. It makes a remarkable amount of suds.
Native Americans used to dry the roots to store for later use. It will get rock hard once dried, but will easily reconstitute when grated and soaked in water.
“Western Soapberry”. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Western_Soapberry.jpg#/media/File:Western_Soapberry.jpg
Sapindus, otherwise known as soapberries or soapnuts, are a genus of shrubs and trees that produce saponins which are fantastic for making soap. In the United States, there are several varieties that grow from the west coast to the east.
Sapindus saponaria is a small to medium-sized deciduous tree, often referred to as Wingleaf Soapberry. It can be found growing in the southeastern United States, namely Florida, Georgia, and parts of South Carolina.
Sapindus drummondii, also known as the Western Soapberry, is native to the southwestern U.S., including Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Mexico. It is especially prevalent in Texas.
Soapberry trees produce berries, which although inedible they are full of saponins which make a wonderful lather. I’ve only used these berries dried, so I’m not sure if they can be used for soap when fresh or not (I’d love to know if any of you have experience using fresh soapberries). Rub dried soapberries in a little water to produce a lather. They’re great for hair and laundry!
“Saponaria-officinalis-flower”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saponaria-officinalis-flower.jpg#/media/File:Saponaria-officinalis-flower.jpg
Saponaria officinalis, a common perennial of the carnation family, also goes by the names: soapwort, rock soapwort, common soapwort, crow soap, wild sweet William, and soapweed, among several other folk names. Native to Europe and Southwestern Asia, it can be grown as a perennial in the US in zones 3-9, and as an annual in zones 2-10.
The early European settlers in America brought soapwort from their native land and used the herb to wash virtually everything ranging from fine fabric like handmade lace to utensils made from tin or alloys. Employees of the New England textile used the soapwort for cleaning as well as thickening freshly woven cloth in a method that was known as ‘fulling’. Owing to this practice, the plant is also known as the fuller’s herb. On the other hand, the lather of soapwort was used by the Pennsylvania Dutch to add a foamy head to beer. In addition, the soapwort was cultivated commercially for its saponin content and the practice continues to this day. Source
In Romanian villages Saponaria officinalis is still used as a gentle soap for people who have dry skin.
A lathery liquid that has the ability to dissolve fats or grease can be procured by boiling the leaves or roots in water. Take a large handful of leaves, bruise and chop them and boil for 30 minutes in 1 pint/600ml of water; strain off the liquid and use this as you would washing-up liquid. Source
Keep in mind, when you’re washing your hair with natural plant materials, you won’t need to wash as often as you do with store-bought shampoos. Back in the day, most women only washed their hair once a week. Also, rain water or creek water is better for your hair than well water, as they don’t have the heavy minerals that come from hard ground water.
I’m working on establishing a Body Care Garden, separate from my food garden, where I will plant several of these soap plants, some herbs that are good for hair rinses (such as rosemary and calendula), and a few vining luffa gourds for natural sponges. There are animals you can raise for soapmaking materials as well. I’m pretty excited about being able to produce my own hygiene products at home from materials I grow or raise myself!
Do you have any tips for washing long hair with plants?