These short articles are written to highlight connections of the plants, history and lore of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden with different time frames or outside connections. A web of intersections.
This month two of our short articles touch on a bit of Garden history concerning the maintenance/office shed and how Eloise Butler ended up in the old Asbury Hospital. Our third article reviews a key plant that produces a useful yet toxic compound - saponin - that is found in your diet and with more potential uses on the horizon.
The gardener’s shed which currently serves as the maintenance center and office space for staff during the Garden’s open season, has a new wood shingle roof. This job was completed by MPRB during the early part of the winter.
The previous roof dated to 1997 when the entire shed was renovated with new roof, siding, and insulation to make it more comfortable in cold weather. During that renovation the MPRB carpenters did the work and the Friends paid for the materials.
This structure is now approaching the age of the old original Garden Office that was retired in 1969. As with that old structure, ideas have circulated for a replacement for a few years now, but like the old office, it may yet take some time.
Below: The Garden shed following the roof replacement. Photo Jennifer Olson.
Not unless you are a fish or a cow. Saponins are glycosides with certain beneficial aspects and certain toxic aspects. We ingest them frequently but in small quantities and frequently after cooking. Edible plants such as spinach, oats, soybean products and a number of legumes and fruits contain saponins. In small quantities saponins are diuretic, they aid in absorption of calcium and silicon and help reduce cholesterol. In that intricate web of intersections of the natural world we learn that in the United States, researchers are exploring the use of saponins derived from plants to control invasive worm species, including the jumping worm. [More about this next month.]
But in certain animals such as ruminants, severe toxic effects can occur. Saponins readily dissolve in water and are particularly dangerous to fish.(1)
The fact that they dissolve in water and have a distinctive foaming characteristic led to their original use as a soap.
The kingpin plant of saponins is Soapwort, Saponaria officinalis.
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.
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.
Medieval brewers used the leaves to put a good head on a mug of beer; the Pennsylvania Dutch continued that tradition. Even today, saponins are used to produce the foamy head of root beer.
Eloise Butler considered Soapwort to be one of her "vagrants," those to which "a blue ribbon should be awarded 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."(2)
Visiting the Garden: When you visit in early summer look for the Soapwort at the far northeast end of the upland. Other plants well known for containing saponins are Wild Sweet William, Ginseng, all those fruit bearing species of the Symphoricarpos genus - Snowberry, Wolfberry, Coralbells - along with Snow Trillium and Blue Cohosh. Many of these are growing in the Wildflower Garden.
Other Garden plants that contain saponins.
(1). Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
(2). Minneapolis Sunday Tribune, 6 August 1911.
December 2022 - Origin of bird feeding at the Garden
December 2022 - Why Moosewood
December 2022 - Did you know: Bees can use tools
December 2022 - Svalbard Seed Vault
November 2022 - Friends activities: Fall Volunteer Events
November 2022 - Garden history bit: Plants from Isle Royal
November 2022 - Did you know: Bees have fun
November 2022 - An interesting Garden plant
October 2022 - Propagation of species by mechanical explosive tension.
October 2022 - Plant census of a small plot
October 2022 - Garden photos from late October.
October 2022 - Eloise Butler gives garden clean-up advice.