Wavy-leaf Soap Plant

Wavy-leaf soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum) over time has been classified in several different families. Currently it is a member of the Agave Family (Agavaceae).

Also known as amole or soaproot, this native perennial is found in grasslands, open dry hills, chaparral, and open woodlands in Oregon and California.

Wavy-leaf soap plant arises from a large bulb that is surrounded by a thick mat of coarse fibers. Contractile roots at the base of the bulb pull the bulb downward so over the life of the plant it becomes more deeply buried. There is a basal rosette of wavy-margined linear leaves and a single, leafless flower stem.

The wavy-leaf soap plant inflorescence is a panicle (branched with the flowers maturing from the bottom up). Individual flowers have long pedicels (stalks) with short bracts. The six white, linear tepals (structures that cannot be identified as sepals or petals) are united at the base and have green or purplish midveins. The tepals are often completely curled. The six stamens are attached to the tepals and have both purple and yellow anthers on the same plant. The anther color is possibly a function of maturity. After flowering the tepals twist around the ovary. The flowers of this unusual plant open early in the evening and close in the morning, presumably to be pollinated by night-pollinators such as moths. After being open all night the tepals wilt, liquefy and dry into remnants. From seed to flowering, wavy-leaf soap plants often take ten years.

Wavy-leaf soap plant fruits are capsules with one or two seeds per chamber.

True to its name, wavy-leaf soap plant bulbs contain saponins that can be used as a soap substitute. Saponins are poisonous. Native Americans used crushed bulbs to stun fish so they could be more easily caught. Although they contain saponins, bulbs were cooked, making them edible. The bulbs were also used as dandruff treatment, a laxative, a diuretic and to treat stomach aches. An extract of the bulbs served as a sealant and as glue. The young leaves are also edible. Bumblebees also appreciate wavy-leaf soap plant because of the nectar secreted at the base of the tepals.

Chlorogalum, the genus name, means “green milk” and refers to the green juice exuded from a broken leaf. The species designation, pomeridianum, refers to the afternoon (after meridian or PM) when the flowers open late in the day.

These wavy-leaf soap plants were photographed in May and June along the Blue Gravel Mine Trail, the Salt Creek Trail and the Cloverdale Loop Trail in Redding CA (Shasta County).

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