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Yucca Root Soap/Shampoo

A while ago a friend gave my wife a copy of Green This: Greening Your Cleaning by Deirdre Imus. My wife was pregnant at the time, so we were perhaps more open to the ideas. The book not only exposed us to the toxicity of modern cleaning methods, but also launched us into an investigation of alternative cleaning methods. We quickly took to the use of vinegar and essential oils for cleaning, but the topic of soaps and shampoos... cleaners you apply to your skin, frequently, was a harder one. What did people historically use? At first glance, the simplest/gentlest soaps seemed to be castille soaps, which are made with saponified olive oil. Saponification is a reaction between lye and an oil or fat, a process that was first discovered when people used wood ashes to help clean out greasy pots (wood ashes contain lye). Unfortunately, lye is extremely caustic and, if made improperly, castille soaps can potentially contain unreacted lye crystals. Since we want to make our own soaps, I wanted to see if there was a more natural/safer method for washing my propia persona - one that didn't leave a potential for excess lye crystals in my soap - so I kept looking. Since saponification is the process of making saponins, I wondered if saponins occur naturally? It turns out the answer is yes.

We learned about soap nuts, which are the dried husks of the fruit of the Sapindus Mukorossi tree and contain a high concentration of saponins. We started using the soap nuts for laundry and were very pleased, but it made me wonder what the natives use around here used? One of the main sources of natural soap was yucca. "Yucca" with two c's. A few internet searches produced some promising leads: you can use the mashed up root or leaves directly, or dry it out for storage and use it as needed in a porous cloth bag like a sort of a soap sponge or washcloth. Reportedly yucca was much preferred over modern shampoos by the native american women since it left their hair silky and healthy.

Over a Thanksgiving break, I took to the task of digging up a small yucca in a part of the homestead's backyard among the native rye that gets mowed down year after year. Little did I know I was embarking on such a big task. I followed the small shaft of the root straight through the hard-pan. It turns out the main roots grew below the hard-pan where the ground softened up and they didn't have any competition. To my surprise, the roots swelled to over an inch in diameter. I had read that in order to eliminate a yucca you had to make sure you dug up all the roots, so I kept digging.

Most of the roots were 1 to 1.5 ft deep. The extent of the root spread was about 6 feet in diameter. Impressive! I transferred the top to a pot and later to another place in the yard to see if I could grow some more. Next came the task of shaving off the dark outer layer and smashing it up for drying. A knife and rubber mallet did the job nicely. I didn't have time to finish the task right then so I threw the rest into a plastic garbage bag to bring home. When I washed my hands I found that the juices gave a noticeable amount of lather and my hands felt very clean to the point they felt almost tacky under water... Saponins make it easier to wash clean by reducing the surface tension of water. Was I actually feeling the reduction of water surface tension on my hands? I like to think so. I remembered my mother always telling me that a little soap goes a long way, yet the media portrayed suds as the "lifting power" (more was better). I realized I hadn't even know how to tell how much soap was enough, or what a change in water surface tension would feel like. Ughhhh!

By the time we made it home from Thanksgiving and opened the bag (a day or so later), I was surprised to find that any part of the root where the skin had been damaged was covered in mold. Wow, that was fast! After cutting off those parts, I finished the job and put the mashed up root out to dry in the sun for a few days for storage.

I put some of the dried yucca root into a clean sock and used it like a washcloth in the shower. I periodically ran it under the water to develop more lather. I could feel that same almost tacky clean feeling. I tried it on my hair as well, kneading and squeezing out more soap as needed. Since my hair is on the oilier end of the spectrum I had to wash it twice, but it worked! I didn't use it again for a couple days just to see if I would develop a reaction. I didn't notice any, so I started using it on a regular basis. I changed the dried root out every day to keep it from molding. After a while of using it regularly, I asked my wife if she wanted to give it a try ... I'll let her give her own testimonial.

All in all, I have been very pleased with yucca root. Who knew that a plant that most people consider a pest or a nuisance could be so useful! Now whenever we drive along and see yucca at the side of the road we say, "Look at all of that soap!" and we know we've found our natural, native, local and effective soap solution.

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