Soap Lily – A Harbinger of Spring

“In the bleak midwinter, icy wind made moan,                                                              

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.                                                                 Snow on snow had fallen, snow on snow on snow,                                                           In the bleak midwinter, long, long ago.”                                                                                          Song “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Gustav Holst, 1906

Granada Native Garden, December, 2018 — Cold, but not bleak

I began writing this on the first day of winter, 2018, while listening to James Taylor’s interpretation of Gustav Holst’s reminiscence about winter, one of my favorites.  In front of me were photos of the Granada Native Garden at this same time of the year.  Obviously, a frigid, blustery winter in England was a different experience for Holst than it is for residents of California.                                                                                                                                  By contrast, the first day of winter in our California is the time to anticipate the renewal of nature, not the death of summer.  By this time, lots of California native plants have gone to sleep for the winter, and the dominant color is brown.  But one of the pleasures of spending time at the Granada Native Garden at this time of the year is to look for signs of spring!                                                                                                                         Here are some of the harbingers of spring that you might see poking above the ground at this time of the year, if you stroll round the Garden and look for them.

Soap Lily – Unassuming But Indispensible!                                                                              It is customary, at this time of the year, to reflect on the lives of people who have made remarkable contributions to our lives, but have not received proportionate acknowledgement. Maybe soap lily can join this noble club!  (Most photos can be enlarged for better viewing by clicking on them.)                                                                            The unassuming soap lily (Chlorogalum pomeridianum), or soap root (or amole in Spanish), starts out life shortly after the first winter rains have awakened it, as a bright green rosette of strap-like leaves hovering just a few inches above the ground.  It is easy to spot if everything else around it is seasonably brown.  The genus name comes from two Greek words, chloros (green) and gala (milk), referring to the plant’s greenish sap.  It is indispensible because most of the Native American tribes in California have found numerous uses for it.  The leaves are edible, and the young leaves were eaten as greens. The Sierra Miwok even used the leaves to make dolls. But the underground bulb was arguably the most useful part of the plant.  It contains saponins, chemicals in the glycoside family which are present in numerous foods that we routinely consume, notably beans and legumes, but the saponin content of soap lily is remarkably high.  Saponins are toxic but are poorly absorbed by our bodies and are destroyed by cooking.  Bert Wilson said that the bulbs taste like “a soapy onion”, but they become edible and sweet after they have been caramelized by roasting for a lengthy period.  In spite of this, they were a significant food for many tribes, and are wholesome and nutritious when thoroughly cooked.

Freshly harvested bulb

But saponins make soap lily useful in other unexpected ways.  It is with good reason also called “soap root” because the bulb creates suds when it is crushed and mixed with water, then used for washing clothing (the English word ‘saponify’ means ‘to convert into a soap’).  It was especially valued for shampooing hair and to treat dandruff and prevent lice.  A paste made by pounding the bulbs was used to cure animal hides.  The juice containing the toxic saponins was stirred into freshwater streams to stupify fish, which could then be scooped out of the water.  (The saponins apparently interfere with the fish’s gills ability to take up oxygen, but the effect is not long lasting, and the Indians had to work quickly before the fish revived! )

Brush made from the fibers

Roasting the bulbs thickens the juice to create a glue.  The glue was usable to attach feathers to arrow shafts and to seal baskets. The juice reportedly also had medicinal qualities as a pain reliever, antiseptic, laxative and diuretic, and to counteract the effects of poison oak.

When freshly dug out of the ground, the bulb is thickly covered with tough, fibrous hairs. The Native Americans didn’t let these go to waste either.  The fibers were gathered into bundles to form handles for brushes that could be used, like our whisk brooms, to clean cooking tools and surfaces, but also for brushing their hair (but the same brushes weren’t used for both purposes!). The glue mentioned above was used to form the handle of the brush.  The fibers were also used to stuff mattresses – a mattress owned by one person was found, after his death, to contain 50 lbs of the fibers.

Ramona Garibay, an East Bay Ohlone, harvesting a bulb

The Soap Lily Flower – a Late Bloomer                                                                                    In late spring or early summer, a long, slender, branching flowering stalk, about 2-4 feet long, arises from the rosette of leaves.  At the tip, dainty blue-veined white flowers appear but, unlike most blossoms, they don’t open until late in the day, and they close up shortly after sunrise.  This characteristic explains the species name, pomeridianum, from the Latin postmeridianus, meaning “after mid-day”.  It accommodates moths and insect pollinators that are active in the evening and night, primarily large native carpenter bees and bumblebees.  (Most photos can be enlarged for better viewing by clicking on them.)

Flower stalk before blossoming


Bumblebee on blossom

Carpenter bee on blossom (Photo courtesy of Gary Nicolson)

Sustainability – A Wise and Necessary  Strategy                                                                                                                                       Obviously, the demand for soap lily/soap root for food, fiber, soap, glue, medicine, tools and even catching fish, was considerably high.  With such a great need for the plant, it was necessary for the indigenous peoples to adopt practices that would guarantee the success of future crops.                                                                                                                When the flowers mature by late summer, they release dozens of seeds which may give rise to a sizable colony.  Only the largest individuals, bearing the largest accumulation of the valuable fiber were harvested, leaving the younger individuals to expand the colony. Alternatively, a digging stick could be used to break the crown off the bottom of the bulb, then the bulb would be replanted elsewhere to grow into a new plant in a few years.  Seeds could be shaken into the hole to start the new colony.

Thanks to M. Kat Anderson, in “Tending the Wild”

During the late summer, when only the dry remains of the rosette are visible on the ground, soap root areas might be burned annually to open up the area to sunlight, release nutrients into the soil, and keep vegetation from encroaching into the collection areas.

Other Early Harbingers of Spring                                                                                              A relaxing, alert and meditative walk around the GNG in January will reveal many other early signs of spring and, if necessary, elevate your spirits on a cold winter day And try to find some of them!  (Most photos can be enlarged for better viewing by clicking on them.)

Arroyo lupine (Lupinus succulentus)

Miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata)

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum)

Malva rose (Malva assurgentiflora)

Bee plant (figwort, Scrophularia californica)

Gooseberry (Ribes speciosum)

California melic (Melica californica)

Quotes du Jour                                                                                                                             “It is a pleasure to watch these subtle seasonal changes happen through your plants and, rather than discount plants that become more modest in our Indian summers, we should see this as what makes them uniquely Californian and a reason to love them, and plant them, all the more.”                                                                                                               – Ildiko Polony, former Mission Blue Nursery Manager, writing about soaproot

            “One charm of the wild garden is that the very changes of plants from what may be thought their most perfect state of blossom, may be itself a new pleasure instead of a warning that we must cut them down or replace them.”                                                                    – William Robinson, English botanist and horticulturalist, in The Wild Garden, 1870

A Special Extra Feature!                               Kirpa was our first volunteer at the Granada Native Garden back in 2010 as a high school senior.  While continuing to be dedicated to the GNG and giving Jim valuable feedback, recently Kirpa found her true love, Navreet, and the two of them were married on Thanksgiving day in a traditional Sikh wedding!  Kirpa plans to continue her dedication to hydrology and water politics, while Navreet will pursue his future in medicine.  May our two friends thrive, along with the GNG!

Check out the native plant selection at ALDEN LANE NURSERY, 981 Alden Lane, Livermore, CA 94550

Plants in 4-inch potsPlants in 4-inch pots

1-gal and larger plants1-gal and larger plants

For reliable certified arborist services, contact STUMPY’S TREE SERVICE, (925)518-1442, .

Stumpy'sGuided Tours of the Granada Native Garden Are Available!                                                     Are you interested in seeing some of the plants that are described in this News- letter or in past issues?  One or more staff of the GNG are routinely on duty at the Garden on Mondays and Thursdays, roughly between 10:00 AM and 12:00 noon.  But it isn’t very hard to arrange a guided visit at other times.  If you are interested in scheduling a visit, just email Jim at .  Or if you have any questions or inquiries, please email Jim at the same address!