Bouncing Bet is an old term for a washerwoman or laundry woman. When the stems, leaves and rhizomes of Saponaria officinalis are soaked in water a mild, soapy lather that can be used for gently washing clothing results. For this reason, one of the common names of S. officinalis is bouncingbet. Soapwort is another colloquial name.
A member of the pink family (carnations are also members of this family) bouncingbet is native to Europe. Originally introduced as an ornamental, bouncingbet escaped cultivation and is now found in open areas, waste areas, roadsides and along railroad tracks throughout North America. Because bouncingbet spreads rapidly and is invasive, crowding out other desirable plants, it is often classified as a noxious weed.
Bouncingbet spreads through rhizomes or seeds. The root forms numerous orange rhizomes. Growing one to three feet in height, this perennial has a branching, erect stem. Bouncingbet leaves are opposite and elliptic with a smooth margin and can be sessile (without a stalk) or have a very short stalk (petiole). Three distinct veins originate from the base of the leaf. The central bouncingbet stem and uppermost side stems terminate in small flower clusters. The flowers have a long, cylindrical calyx (outer flower part) that is green and five white or light pink petals that are notched at the tips. With age the petals curve backward. A sac-like capsule containing seeds forms in each calyx. Originally white, the seeds turn black as they mature.
The entire bouncingbet plant contains saponins with the highest concentration found in the seeds. Saponins, soluble in water, are the source of the bouncingbet’s soaplike substance. Saponins are also toxic causing irritations to the digestive tract with resultant vomiting, diarrhea and nausea. If ingested in large amounts unsteadiness, breathing difficulties and eventually coma and death can result. Fortunately animals tend to avoid eating bouncingbet so it is not a significant problem.
Butterflies and moths are attracted to the nectar of bouncingbet. I suppose they somehow handle the saponin toxicity. Birds appear to have little use for bouncingbet seeds.
These bouncingbet plants were thriving in an open area next to Medicine Lake (Siskiyou County CA).