Bouncing Bet is an introduced and naturalized erect perennial forb growing to two plus feet in height on green, mostly hairless stems. They are usually unbranched but branching may occur near the top. The stem bulges at the leaf nodes.
The leaves are opposite, elliptic elongated ovals with 3 to 5 prominent ribs, toothless but wavy margins and 2x as long as wide - usually no more than 4 inches long. They are either stalkless or have short stalks with broad wings. Both surfaces are smooth and free of hair with the underside a slightly paler shade of green.
The inflorescence is a domed cluster of many flowers atop the stem or atop side stems rising from the upper leaf axils. The cluster elongates as the flowers begin to open.
The flowers are fragrant, sometimes double, with the sepals of the calyx forming a one inch long green tube with five small pointed lobes which may take on a reddish tint. The corolla can be either pink or white with the five petals spreading perpendicular to the calyx and being one inch wide when open. Petals can be doubled in some cultivars. The petals have a clawed base and are widest near the rounded tip which has a rounded notch or is sometimes cleft. There is a pair of small pointed bracts at the base of the calyx. The flowers are perfect with 10 stamens whose white filaments are exserted from the tube when the flower opens. Anthers are white to yellowish. These surround 2 styles which each have two stigmas.
Seed: Fertile flowers form a dry seed capsule, slightly shorter than the calyx, that contains 15 to 75 1.6 to 2 mm wide dark kidney shaped seeds that have a pebbled surface. These are dispersed by wind shaking the stem.
Habitat: Bouncing Bet grows from rhizomatous root system allowing it to propagate vegetatively and form colonies. It can spread aggressively. Preferred soils are well drained, not necessarily rich, moist to mesic conditions and full sun. In partial sun the plants become floppy. Bouncing Bet is a pretty plant of roadsides and waste places. The Garden population is most concentrated at the far east end of the Upland Garden in early summer and along the Upland Garden entrance path in late summer - those plants tend to sprawl.
Names: The genus name, Saponaria, is from the Latin saponis meaning 'soap' and aria, meaning 'pertaining to', together referring to the juice of the leaves and root that can make a soap. The species name officinalis is also Latin and means 'of the shops', all referring to the historic use of the plant as a cleanser, particularly in fine fabric shops. See the Lore section below. The common name of “Bouncing Bet,” thought to come from the visual effect of the reflexed petals looking like the rear of a washerwoman, name of Bet, bent over. The author name for the plant classification, 'L.', refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. See notes below the photos for commentary on the other common names.
Above: The inflorescence elongates as the flowers begin to open. Each flower is subtended by a pair of small green bracts at the base of the 1 inch long calyx tube. The clawed base of the petals is hidden within the tube.
Below: 1st photo - Stem nodes are enlarged. 2nd photo - Beneath the flower are a pair of green pointed bracts. 3rd photo - The styles usually have 2 stigmas and extend well beyond the corolla tube.
Below: 1st photo - The leaf structure showing the prominent leaf veins of which there can be 3 to 5. 2nd photo - An example of a pinkish flower color.
Below: Leaves - Both the upper surface (1st photo) and the underside (2nd photo) are smooth and free of hair; the underside a paler color.
Below: Pink flower Bouncing Bet with doubled petals in early August.
Below: An erect white flower example from early summer in the far NE Upland Garden
Notes: Eloise Butler's records show that she obtained plants of this species from a site called "Schutt's Forty" on Sept. 1, 1912. (This was the property, located in Eden Prairie Township, of her good friend Clara Schutt.) The plant is a European import from pioneer times and has a long useful history (see below). However, it has naturalized across the entire United States and the lower Canadian provinces, causing it to be placed on the Noxious Weed list in many areas. In Minnesota it is generally found in the East Central and SE parts of the State. It is the only species of Saponaria found in Minnesota but three other species occur elsewhere in the U.S.
Eloise Butler wrote: "Some naturalized plant citizens, with attractive flowers, one might like to have in the garden, if they were not so aggressive. But, if admitted, they would selfishly shoulder out the weaker and possible more desirable inmates. The place for such vagrants is, therefore, the roadside where they will thrive on a hard bed and a crust of earth. Bouncing Bet and Butter ‘n’ eggs may be cited as examples. A blue ribbon should be awarded them for certain sterling qualities. During protracted droughts, when other vegetation has succumbed and even the grass blades have shriveled, they alone put out their blossoms and brighten what would otherwise be a bare and desert waste. The name Bouncing Bet probably refers to the luxuriant growth’ but the other name, "old maid’s pinks", seems especially applicable. For to do their duty cheerfully under adverse circumstances is the metier of spinsters." Published Aug 6, 1911, Minneapolis Sunday Tribune.
Lore and Uses: The blossoms have a pleasantly strong smell, so it was planted along poor streets in cities to hide smells from bad sanitation. In this context it is sometimes referred to as “London Pride.” Other common names are Latherwort, Lady’s-wash Bowl, Old Maid’s-pink and Fuller’s Herb. In the French language the plant is still referred to that way - “Herbe à foulon” (Fuller’s Herb). The French appellation is most correct as the plant was extensively planted next to textile mills (a “Fuller” being anyone who works with cloth). It has been known since the Middle Ages that the leaves and the rhizomes, when boiled in water, make a highly effective soapy lather for cleaning and slightly bleaching delicate fabrics; thus the plant material can produce a natural detergent. As late as the 1960s it was still reported to be used occasionally in museums for cleaning old tapestries. In her extensive notes and comments on the French town of Aix, M. F. K. Fisher reports of still seeing plantings of Fuller’s Herb outside of shops that worked with fabrics. This was in the late 1940s.
The root stalk contains the soap making ingredient “saponin”, the leaves a lesser quantity. One can test this with the leaves by simply bruising them and add water, swish around and you find a bit of soapy bubbles forming. It is recorded that Friars brought the seeds to England from the Continent, as the plant was frequently grown next to monasteries. When English colonists came to North America, the seeds came with them. They also found the saponin solution effective in restoring color and sheen to old china, pewter and glass in addition to lace.
The plant material is however, slightly poisonous, so care must be taken. A decoction, or extract, of the crushed root was and still is used for treating poison ivy and other skin itches. This is effective because of the cleansing ability of the saponins. It was also taken internally as a diuretic, laxative and and expectorant. Modern research has found chemicals within the plant that are useful in treating certain conditions. The slight poisonous properties, notwithstanding, Medieval brewers used the leaves to put a good head on a mug of beer; the Pennsylvania Dutch continued that tradition.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"