Sapindus, saponins, toxicity & why nature isn’t always best

horsechestnuts aesculus hippocastanum fruit
Aesculus hippocastanum, more commonly known as the horse chestnut. Contains high concentrations of the saponin aescin, which has proved useful in the treatment of inflammatory and venous ailments.

After yesterday’s post about sapindus and soap nuts, I thought it important to write a short aside about why natural is not always best, even if this runs contrary to the modern mantra. Yesterday evening, I received a message from a dear friend of mine, who also happens to be a biophysicist.

Whilst I knew that saponins were renowned for their frothing properties, I was not familiar with some of their other attributes. As my friend put it, saponins are made up of amphiphilic molecules – half of the molecule likes to be in water, whilst the other likes to be in lipids. This allows them to solubilize lipids and oils, cleaning up grease”. Great. What these chemicals are also capable of doing, however, is destroying cells by altering their membranes. As said friend affirms, “they are probably used by the plant in defence against bacteria and fungi” and, like other soap-like chemicals, are a bit toxic to the environment. In fact, so effective are some saponins at killing fish, that they are employed by indigenous peoples for fishing to this day, in places ranging from Guyana to the Indian subcontinent.

So where does this leave us on the subject of soap nuts as an alternative to washing detergent? Well, firstly, I would be interested in running a comparative toxicity test to determine whether all things are equal. Presuming that they are, as my friend says, I can still see advantages in soap nuts, not only for their affordability, but also for their reduction in processing, packaging, and the possibility of composting them once spent. I presume that not all saponins are made equal, and that interesting, more local alternatives could be found in soapwort, saponaria officinalis, or the humble horse chestnut, aesculus hippocastanum (yes, I was glad to find out that they were good for something, too!). So I have some experimenting to do. Continue reading


Sapindus: a natural alternative to washing powder (and just as effective)

soapnuts sapindus saponins.jpg
Soap nuts, the dried fruit of the Sapindus plant, contains high concentrations of saponins and tannins.

Over the last year or so, I’ve become particularly conscious of the amount of unnecessary chemicals we put into our water systems, so I’ve been looking to make a few changes to my habits to see what I can improve on a microcosmic scale. In this instance, I wanted to find an answer to the kilos of washing powder that I use every year, and to see if there was a cost-effective alternative that didn’t require an increase in labour. I appear to have found the alternative: soap nuts.

Part of the lychee family, soap nuts are the berries of the sapindus tree. The etymology of this plant is a contraction of the plant’s origin and its soapy properties, coming from the Latin sapo, meaning ‘soap’, and indicus, denoting its Indian origin (though some similar plants can be found in North and Central America).

In his book Ethnopharmacology of Medicinal Plants: Asia and the Pacific (2007), Dr Christophe Wiat states that “the plant abounds with saponins and tannins, hence the antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, cosmetic, and expectorant properties”.  The berries feature in a number of folk remedies throughout Asia, from the treatment of skin complaints, to the washing of hair and fine silks – however, in this instance, I just wanted to get my washing clean.

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In Praise of the Quince

quince fruit peckham
Quinces foraged in Peckham, South London, 2014.

The first time I stumbled upon a quince tree, I thought that I had discovered the Holy Grail of pears. Golden against grey Cambridgeshire skies, they looked like the juiciest, sweetest fruit that I had ever come across in a city. Frustrated with my diminutive stature, I realized that there was no way that I would be able to reach them (despite numerous attempts with the crook of my umbrella), and began to concoct a plan for how I might.

Several weeks later, walking through the streets of South London, I came across the mythical fruit once more. Ever tempting (and ever out of reach) I was beginning to understand why the fruit was believed to be the temptation of Eve.

I returned with the aid of two strong arms and a picking device, crudely and ingeniously fashioned from the remains of an invasive buddleia plant and a plastic bottle. To our delight, the device worked, and while we worried about our merry missiles bouncing off car roofs, we savored the sweetly-ripe smell that arose from their downy, waxen skin. But this is where the magic ended. As I sunk my teeth into the flesh and brought the fruit around my tongue, I was met with a fluffy, floury texture and thought that I had in fact bitten into some kind of deceptively delicious-smelling fruit hybrid. Despite my sadness at the hoard of bad apples, I kept the fruit, deciding that they would probably work well in a pickle or a preserve irrespective of the texture. I was right.

A little reading revealed that the fruit I had picked were in fact quinces, and that my instincts to pickle them had been correct. The quince does not yield its gifts willingly, and the heady bouquet of flavors that tempts us in the first place needs coaxing from its flesh. We owe the name of one of our most prized preserves—marmalade—to the Portuguese word for quince, marmelo, derived from the Greek μελίμηλον (melimēlon, or “honey fruit”). It was the Greeks who first discovered that cooking quince over a low heat with sugar or acid would cause the resultant reduction to set, and it is from this point that we can trace most modern jams and pickles.

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Cider Vinegar: Mother, Is That You?

cider vinegar mother.JPG
The ghost of the vinegar ‘mother’ can be seen floating at the top of the jar.

The vinegar has passed into its second month, and it seems that all is going well. The ‘mother’ is starting to form at the top of the jar, which lets me know that everything is working as it should be. I’m quite excited about the presence of this strange, ethereal substance, as it will have a lifetime far longer than this vinegar if I play my cards right.

Once the vinegar is finished to my tastes, which may be another few months yet, I will be able to remove the mother, wash it, and use it as a starter culture for other vinegar projects. I am quite keen to make some attempts experimenting with wine and berry vinegars next, as it will allow me to have greater control of the flavours. Equally, I intend to incorporate some foraged herbs in the process to see how that affects the results. I will update with my findings.

For more information about how the vinegar was made, click here.

Urban Gardening & Homemade Seed Plugs

One of the main challenges I’ve faced living in London is that I have had to move around a lot. Whilst this has had some benefits (ummm…?), the main set-back is that I have had to plan my growing on a temporary basis. Restricted outdoor space means getting creative, too. However, even when I’ve had little more than a windowsill, I have managed to yield some excellent results, so don’t let this hold you back. It’s just a matter of planning and picking the right crops to suit your space. On one windowsill a few years ago, I grew salad, spring onions, calendula, cornflowers, radishes and herbs with great success. It’ll depend which way your window is facing, amongst other things, but a little research can go a long way.

broad bean seeds
Above, seeds from last year’s broad beans. Community gardens are a great place to exchange seeds with locals and to get growing advice.

A good resource at your disposal is your local community garden. Most boroughs have them, and many of them hold courses with opportunities for hands-on practice that will push your skills to the next level.  If you are in South East London, I cannot recommend Glengall Wharf Garden enough. They are kind, patient, interested and interesting, and have provided me with a wealth of invaluable information. They hold a number of courses throughout the year, and provide gentle, encouraging guidance to everyone from the most seasoned gardeners to complete beginners.

Although I have done a lot of sowing-and-growing during my relatively short time on this planet, I like to consult books on even the most basic of things just to familiarize myself with alternative methods. It provides me with a way to troubleshoot if and when things go wrong (they often do!), and it is very satisfying when new, experimental methods work out well. We all have something new to learn, and, it seems, even the experts miss a trick every now and again. I came across one such instance recently when reading through the Veg Patch: River Cottage Handbook No.4. Diacono often talks about using Jiffy propagation plugsto start his seeds off. Whilst these are indeed effective (and perhaps useful for growing on a commercial scale), it seemed silly to me, because there’s a resource available in most households (except, perhaps, some vegan households!) that is superior, and a good reuse of household waste: egg shells.

egg shell seed propagation plugs
Egg shells make for great seed propagation plugs. Above, a dozen broad bean seed plugs I made a couple of days ago.

Making an egg shell seed starter is easy, read on for my guide to making your own.

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New Year’s Frustration & Garden Planning

Broadbean pod

For many people, the New Year heralds a sigh of relief with its promise of clean slates and forward-thinking, yet for me, the month of January is always filled with frustration. Its etymology contains happy nudges towards the actions associated with the New Year: namely, rejuvenation and reflection. Specifically, January is related to both the double-headed Roman god of new beginnings, Janus, and the fearsome warrior-goddess Juno [*for those interested, see P.S. for etymology/history]. But for me, January is a waiting game lodged between the two of them. Having reflected on last year’s successes and failures, and having planned most of the whats-and-wheres for growing in 2015, I am very eager to start getting my hands dirty.

My garden notebook, where I keep plans, growing notes, and names of varieties, among other things. Particularly high up my list is the anticipated arrival of sweet cicely, Myhrris odorata, and the opportunity to experiment sprouting seeds from prime fruit and vegetables that I had the fortune to eat last year, including one of the juiciest marmande tomatoes that I have ever eaten. All being well, I am also hoping to start growing a quince tree.

Although there are still things to be foraged at this time of year — from tansies to incredibly tardy apples — the excitement of the heights of the mushroom season has died down considerably, and I find myself like a child counting down to Christmas thinking about the seas of wild garlic that will soon surface again from the deep. Happily, the relative quiet of the outdoors has had me creating all kinds of fermented concoctions at home: from staples such as sourdough to yoghurt and delicious beer.

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The Wonders of Cauliflower ‘Rice’


above: vegetarian chilli and cauliflower rice

Generally I am very sceptical of dietary trends and don’t tend to pay too much attention to them. Every week there seems to be a new ‘superfood’ of some description, and some trends, in their ignorance, verge on being downright harmful. There are, however, a few things that catch on that are innovative — or at least imaginative — and one of these is the use of grated cauliflower as a rice or couscous substitute.

In India, the gobi is a much-revered vegetable, and I think it very sad that here in the West cauliflower is so often relegated to being smothered in a cheesy, non-descript sauce. It has so much more going for it.

…So why not try it for yourself?

The texture is wonderful, it is filling (and only 30kcal/cup!), and vitally, it is good for you. My main critique is that the vegetable retains quite a lot of water, which, if not dealt with, can end up turning things a little too juicy. John Whaite recommends lightly frying beforehand, which works well, and it can also be strained with kitchen towels if you wish to keep it raw.

Urban Apples and Cider Vinegar

Urban Apples and Cider Vinegar

I. On Apples

People are often surprised by just how much it is possible to forage in a city, even in the depths of winter. The above pictures are the fruits of a recent foray in Leicester with M and R, and there were a lot more left on the trees. Many cities – London especially – have built over and around former orchards, and it is not hard to find trees that have risen from discarded apple cores along the roadside or the banks of canals. I was delighted to find one set of trees in Lincolnshire recently that I initially thought had been decorated with Christmas lights, but were in fact laden with apples. Often, it is just a case of looking a little closer.


Unfortunately, supermarket conditioning has left us wary of fruit that isn’t uniformly shaped and coloured. I use ‘uniformly’ over any other adjective, as I believe a fruit can be described as ‘pristine’ or ‘perfect’ even if it does not adhere to supermarket standards. It worries and angers me in equal measure to see kilos of fruit left to rot at the base of a tree on a street, only to see people buying them at an extortionate price from the supermarket. If you are lucky enough to have such a resource in your community, please use it, and encourage others to do so. There are few things more lovely than to see a box of fruit left out with a notice encouraging people to take some home with them.

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