Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Bouncing Bet or Soapwort
Nature Bulletin No 492   May 4, 1957
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist

An old abandoned farm house, hidden away from busy towns and highways, always seems haunted by the ghosts of the family it once sheltered. Long after the house has fallen into ruin and its people are forgotten, such an overgrown homesite still may be haunted by ghosts of the woman's flower garden. A tangled thicket may hide dead or dying remnants of her lilac bush, her yellow or cabbage roses, mock orange, trumpet creeper or other old-fashioned shrubs and vines. A few spindly hollyhocks, sunflowers, morning glories, day lilies or phlox may push up through the matted grass year after year. Very often. however, among these pathetic survivors is a large knee-high patch of thrifty Bouncing Bet, a plant too full of vigor to require the pampering care of a gardener.

The Bouncing Bet, a relative of pinks and carnations, bears inch-broad, spicy-smelling flowers from July until September. The five scalloped petals are joined to form a tube and this in turn is enclosed by the green calyx tube. Some have double flowers. Pink or lavender when grown in the sun, the blossoms are nearly white in shade. It attracts few insects except the hawk moth which comes at dusk to sip nectar with its long tongue.

The rather pale green leaves are arranged in pairs, with the bases of each pair united to clasp the smooth stout stem. It multiplies either by seed or by creeping rootstocks which can produce a large patch spreading from a single plant. Although seldom planted or cultivated any more. Bouncing Bet became naturalized long ago and now grows wild over most of eastern North America and in places on the Pacific Coast. Throughout Illinois it is common on roadsides, ditch banks, in fallow fields and along railroads.

It is a question whether Bouncing Bet was prized most as an ornamental flower, as a substitute for soap, or as a source of drugs. The colonists brought it to this country from England where it had been grown for centuries under many different names -- Soapwort, Scourwort, Fuller's Herb, Hedge Pink, and Maid's pink, Wild Sweet William, Sweet Betty, and Lady-at-the-Gate. The first three refer to its use for washing. The leaves, stems and roots, when bruised, release a mucilaginous juice and a substance called saponin which produces a suds in water. It was used to launder delicate fabrics and in making fine soaps. Generations of farmers' wives have hurriedly dug Bouncing Bet roots, pounded them on a board and soused them in the water, when they ran out of soap on wash day.

All parts of the plant and especially the seeds are somewhat poisonous to grazing animals, causing irritation of the digestive tract, dizziness, depressed breathing, and even death by destroying the red blood cells. Fortunately, it is avoided by livestock. It is very poisonous to some people. Like so many other poisonous plants, Bouncing Bet is also listed as a drug plant. In early times there was a widespread belief in its medicinal virtues. It was supposed to cure the itch and chronic infections.

Two troublesome European weeds, the Cow Cockle and the Corn Cockle which infest our American wheat fields, are near relatives of the Bouncing Bet. Both also contain the same poisonous substances and have the property of producing a lather in water. In various parts of the world, other plants have been used as soap substitutes -- Soapberry, Soapbark Tree, Soap Nut, Soap Pod and Soap Orange.

Did Betty bounce and, if so, why?

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