Back before phosphates, people used this nifty little plant for washing. It contains saponins, which cause boiled solutions made with soapwort to lather up. It's like nature's little bar of soap.
Where the phosphates in modern detergents hold dirt and oil suspended in water long enough to rinse your clothes clean, soapwort does something similar, only gently and naturally. It makes an effective shampoo too. (I'm not sure about the pH, but I'll check the next time I use it.) Heirloom quilts and other textiles are sometimes cleaned with soapwort as a precautionary measure. It's that gentle. You can also use it as a facial cleanser, wood soap and all-purpose, light duty cleaner.
Growing Soapwort in the Garden
Although there's a soapwort ground cover that goes by the same common name, Saponaria officinalis is a perennial that grows to about three feet (U.S. hardiness zones 3-9). Unlike many herbs, it needs well composted soil. Give it excellent drainage and good but not burning sun. Some afternoon shade is a good idea too. If soapwort likes its surroundings, it can be invasive, so keep an eye on it.
Soapwort will require a sturdy support to stay upright and looking spritely as it grows. It typically blooms in late July and has a very nice berry/spicy scent.
Harvest the leaves, stems and roots of this perennial to make liquid soap. Soapwort is effective (it'll foam up) both fresh and dried. For some recipes, visit my post: How to Make Organic Soap Using Soapwort.
Photo1 - By Karelj (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/Saponaria_officinalis_Prague_2011_3.jpg
Photo2 - This very nice soapwort photo at the bottom of this blog was provided courtesy of: Steve Krahn. Visit this great pic and his other work at Flickr