Love/Hate: Soapwort opera

This pretty double soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) has been sharing my Microgarden for more than 22 years. I say “sharing” because soapworts have this wacky idea that the garden belongs to them. They have, after all, lived here longer than me. We tussle over ownership for a while, but they usually give in without much of a fight. I always leave them a corner to call their own. Next spring, we’ll have the same, erm, discussion all over again.

Soapworts spread by eager underground runners and they are prolific seeders, hence our annual struggle. However, they do flower in sandy dry shade, which is always a plus in my book. Another plus is their old-fashioned sweet-peppery scent, which always takes me back to childhood (perhaps I’m older than I think; saponaria root has been used as a soap since the Renaissance).

Our youngest daughter is Elizabeth, so the common name Bouncing Bet is another reason I’m fond of this flower.

I grow the single form, too. It piggybacked into my front garden years ago along with a transplant of Hemerocallis fulva from Sarah’s country place. Talk about the gift that keeps on giving. Soapwort has naturalized in agricultural regions since it was introduced by ever-practical colonists for its utility. It’s now found in almost every state, province and territory.

Soapwort belongs to the carnation family Caryophyllaceae, with the same knobby knees on their stems as their cousins carnations and pinks. My Saponaria officinalis grows 12-18 inches tall and tends to be lank, flopping in the shade and semi-shade. This year, I experimented with pinching them back once in spring to keep them more compact. It worked well enough that I might give them a double-beheader next year.

In May and June, it’s the tuft of low-growing rock soapwort (Saponaria ocymoides) that’s one of my old reliables on the tough dry shade slope out front.

There you go: love it for its unfussy temperament and reliable bloom; hate it for its relentless wandering ways. Take a deep sniff, pull on your gloves and decide.


  1. It's the scent that makes me give thumbs up to this flower. Funny that we both inherited big swathes of it in our places. Looking forward to my next trip out to the country to drink in the flower fragrance, they should be bursting with bloom right about now.

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