It was about 7 years ago when I first started noticing and learning about this versatile plant that I put the following information together.
The plant I used for making this brush is a soap plant, Chlorogalum pomeridianum.
Up here in northern California, Shasta County to be particular the local soap plant is also known as Amole and has the Latin name Chlorogalum pomeridianum. It likes dry, open hills. Although it is very common, you have to make a special effort to enjoy the delicate beauty of the flowers. Mostly, you will just notice the basal leaves, which start to appear in March. A twiggy stem develops in May, with inconspicuous buds. The flowers only open late in the day or when it is very overcast, so look for them around twilight. They are mostly pollinated by moths that avoid the sunlight, but bees also pollinate them.
Ok, so why the name? Both the indigenous peoples and the early settlers used it as a soap. They stripped the outer coating from the bulb and used the crushed pulp to wash with. It makes an excellent lather. Baking destroys the soapy (saponin) character of the bulbs, making them edible. The spring shoots are very sweet when cooked. Even the basal leaves are edible. The juice from the baking bulbs makes good glue. There are other “soap plants” in California, including the closely-related Chlorogalum augustifolim, which is referred to as “narrowleaf soap plant,” our local plant being called “wavy-leaf” to distinguish it.
A rosette of wavy blue-green leaves is often the most noticeable part of the soap plant. The leaves may grow up to 2 feet long, flattened against the ground. In May or June these leaves start to wither as a stout stem 2 to 4 feet high rises from the root stalk. Dainty blue-veined white flowers appear successively up the stalk, opening briefly in the afternoon. The descriptive name, pomeridianum, means “opening in the afternoon.” The large deeply seated bulb is covered with coarse fibers.
The indigenous peoples had many uses for this plant. The bulb was baked for food, and the coarse fibers were used to make brushes. The crushed bulb made a soapy lather that was used as a shampoo. This same material was used to help catch fish. It was put into low flowing streams where it would get into the gills of fish so they could not breathe. The crushed bulb also made a glue used variously for fletching arrows, putting backings on bows, and making brush handles. The mashed bulb was applied to relieve sores and poison oak rash and to cure rheumatic pains and cramps. In addition to the bulb, very young shoots proved to be a very sweet food when cooked slowly in a pit oven. When still young, the fresh green leaves were sometimes eaten raw. The older leaves were used for wrapping acorn bread during baking. Juice from the leaves was pricked into the skin for green tattoo markings.
Boy oh boy. A plant that is both soap and cleaning utensil, plus so much more? Could plants be any more amazing? Just be careful to cook it thoroughly to avoid any stomach upset the saponins might induce. ~AR