Soapberries for the birds

Sapindus saponaria flowers.JPG

western soapberry
Sapindus saponaria

  • USUALLY 10-15', up to 50' in ideal conditions

  • white flowers in spring - early summer followed by translucent globose fruids

  • regular to moderate water (low to terrace zone)



  • NECTAR PLANT FOR BUTTERFLIES AND NATIVE BEES, larval host for soapberry hairstreak butterfly

Soapberry is a single-stemmed, low-branched, round-crowned tree, growing 10-50 ft. tall depending on habitat (usually on the smaller side in our region). The gray, sculpted bark is distinctive in the dormant season. White flowers appear in late spring - early summer followed by fleshy, translucent, globose fruits.

The poisonous fruit, containing the alkaloid saponin, has been used as a soap substitute for washing clothes. Necklaces and buttons are made from the round dark brown seeds, and baskets are made from the wood, which splits easily.

Western soapberry can grow in full sun to part shade, uses low to moderate water, and can take temperatures into the single digits °F. This tree is also known for suckering and spreading to form small groves. This can be controlled by digging up suckers or planting barriers. Plants are more likely to sucker in loose soils, less likely in hard soils with caliche. 

Surprisingly, birds eat the fruits, and butterflies are nuts about this tree--they love the flowers and several species of insects use this plant as a larval host, especially the soapberry hairstreak butterfly (Phaeostrymon alcestis). 

Katherine Gierlach