Soaproot (Clorogalum pomeridianum) gets its common name from its use as soap by the California Indians. The plant is also called amole or amole lily.
I collected soaproot from a large patch this winter, as you can see I found it by its dried stalks and leaves, since only a few small young leaves were showing:
I made sure to leave the lower part of the root to resprout, place any seeds from the dried stalk into the hole, and re-cover it with dirt and litter. That’s how the Indians assured sustainable harvest (Anderson 2005). In fact, such gathering techniques often enhanced the growth of the bulb populations, since they co-evolved with disturbance from humans, rodents, pigs, and other consumers, they reproduce vegetatively, so the tilling and breaking up of the root, and spreading seed all act to make the population expand in number and size (Anderson 2005).
This is one soaproot, I collected, showing the lower root left at the bottom of the hole, into which I placed the seeds left on the flower stalk, and filled the dirt and litter back over it:
Indians gathered the fresh young shoots in March and roasted them to make them sweet and tasty (Chesnut 1902).
Raw, the saponins make it toxic, but the bulb is good to eat after being slowly roasted or boiled in its skin. The Indians would use an earth oven of course, but sometimes boiled them. You can boil them for 45 mins to an hour to fully cook them. Or bake them at 400 degrees for an hour or so. Before cooking, you need to remove the fibrous outer husk, first by peeling away the easily-separated outer parts, then bending back the still-attached fibers from the bulb leaf tips (it’s a lot like an onion, which is also in the Lily family (Liliaceae)), and snipping off the fibers with scissors, and finally washing to get a nice looking cream-colored, smooth bulb.
To make soap, just mash up one or more of these bulbs in a bowl with a jar bottom (or mortar and pestle), add water, and beat into a froth. This soap is very moisturizing; great for dandruff, and leaves hair soft, silky, and shiny. This soap was preferred by Indians to soap made by settlers for cleaning baskets, washing silk and delicate fabrics, removing dandruff, and washing hair, which was left very soft and glossy (Chesnut 1902).
Soaproot had lots of uses for the Indians besides soap and food.
The fibrous root cover was gathered into bunches and used to make brushes used for processing acorns, being used to sweep up bits of flour and nut pieces while grinding and sorting out the hulls (Parker and Ortiz 1991). These fibers were also occasionally used to make beds (Chesnut 1902). Roasted, the bulb was used as an antiseptic poultice for sores (Chesnut 1902).
Fresh, the bulb was rubbed on the body for cramps and rheumatism (Chesnut 1902).
A decoction of the bulb was used as a diuretic and laxative and for stomach ache characterized by excessive gas in the stomach (Chesnut 1902).
Juice of the fresh green leaves was used as green ink for tattooing (Chesnut 1902).
The leaves were highly esteemed in summer, when other leaves are dry, as the best succulent, flexible, and large leaf for baking acorn bread (Chesnut 1902). The dough is completely covered with the leaves, then placed on hot rocks and covered with other leaves and ashes (Chesnut 1902).
When the bulb is roasted, a viscid juice is exuded that served as a substitute for glue for for attaching feathers to arrows (Chesnut 1902). This glue diluted with water was applied to bow backs and soot upon the bow just after to turn it permanently black, making it appear old (Chesnut 1902). The reason the probably did this was to make it less conspicuous to their prey, a bright, shiny, whitish object being alarming and suspicious to any animal.
Another famous use of soaproot is as a fish poison. Crushed pulp of the root was thrown into small, low-water streams, or deep pools to stupify fish and eels, which were then collected in great quantity to eat (Chesnut 1902). One account tells of how after the last rains of June, a village would assemble and mash up many bushels of soaproot bulbs on rocks (Chesnut 1902). Meanwhile, a 6-7 ft high weir is built downstream by driving willow poles into the river bed and lashing them with redbut bark (Chesnut 1902). Indians stationed up the stream for 3 miles or so evenly spread out the crushed bulbs while constantly agitating the water (Chesnut 1902). Shortly the fish and eels, but not frogs, floated to the surface stupified and were captured by hand or in a shallow, coarse-meshed basket (Chesnut 1902). As much as 100 bushels of fish and eels were thus captured at one time, and this quantity evenly divided between everyone in the village (Chesnut 1902). No ill effects resulted from eating such “poisoned” fish Sometimes pther plants were used in combination, or alone, but only turkey mullein (Croton setigerus) was as effective as soaproot (Chesnut 1902).
Soaproot and yucca, (esp. twisted- leaf yucca) are very similar taxonomically, superficially, and in uses by Native Americans. Yucca has saponins, its roots were used as soap, to stupify fish, and was eaten after cooking.
Anderson, M. K. 2005. Tending the wild: Native American knowledge and management of California’s natural resources. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
Chesnut, V. K. 1902. Plants used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.
Disclaimer: Always be 100% certain of the identity of any mushroom or plant before ingesting. Many mushrooms and plants superficially look very similar, and without expert identification, it is easy to mistake a poisonous and edible species. I assume no responsibility for any harm, injury, or death from information given in this post.