COMMON NAMES: SOAPBERRY, WESTERN SOAPBERRY, WILD CHINATREE, WILD CHINABERRY, INDIAN SOAP PLANT, JABONCILLO
BOTANICAL NAME: Sapindus drummondii
PRONUNCIATION: sap-IN-dus druh-MUN-dee-eye
FAMILY: Sapindaceae (Soapberry Family)
TYPE: Deciduous tree
HEIGHT: 40 to 50 feet
SPREAD: 20 to 30 feet
FINAL SPACING: 15 to 20 feet
NATURAL HABITAT AND PREFERRED SITE: All of the vegetative areas of Texas in a wide range of soils. It also adapts to various garden soils as long as they are well-drained. Soapberry is found along streams, at the edges of woods, also in fencerows. It is sometimes confused with the pecan tree because of the texture and look of the compound leaves. As opposed to pecan it is a short lived tree.
IDENTIFICATION INFORMATION: Soapberry is an upright to spreading medium-sized tree with a rounded crown at maturity, white flowers in the spring, chinaberry-like fruit in the fall, light colored bark, and slightly weeping branches.
FLOWERS AND FRUIT: Flowers form May to June in large showy panicles 5 to 10 inches long. Fruit forms in the fall, September to October is round, fleshy, white to yellowish and translucent. Male and female flowers occur on separate trees (dioecious). Each fruit contains one shiny black seed. Fruit stays on the tree usually all winter. Yellow orange fruit is fairly showy through winter and is rich in saponin used by American Indians as a cleansing agent. Handling the fruits has been known to cause dermatitis in some people.
BARK: Light tan but gets darker with age peeling off in thin flakes. Mature color of the bark is a salmon-brown to orange- brown color.
FOLIAGE: Leaves are compound, alternate, deciduous, yellow in the fall up to 18 inches in length with 4 to 19 leaflets. Leaflets are 1-1/2 to 4 inches long, sometimes a spectacular yellow gold in the fall. Foliage is very similar to Chinese pistachio.
CULTURE: Easy to grow in any well-drained soil. Needs little fertilizer and is drought tolerant. Soapberry spreads vegetatively by rhizomes forming large groves that are sometimes only one sex.
Photo by Mike Mirabal
PROBLEMS: Short lived tree. Pest problems are minimal. Has never seemed to transplant well into landscape projects.
PROPAGATION: Easy to grow from seed collected from the trees in late fall or early winter. Clean by soaking in hot water and rubbing on a screen or dry with the pulp on and story in sealed containers in a cool place for up to a year. Soapberry has a hard seed coat so scarify in acid, vinegar or acetic acid for 3 hours and then stratify at 35 to 45 degrees for 30 to 60 days prior to planting. There is not much information on propagating soapberry from cuttings and I have never tried it so you are on your own.
INSIGHT: Berries are still used in Mexico as soap. Flower nectar is believed to be poisonous and the fruit is not preferred by wildlife. Indians have used the fruit much like rotenone to stun fish. Some books say the pulp is mildly poisonous. It is definitely very bitter making it highly unlikely that anyone would eat enough to cause more than a stomachache.