Soaproot, also known as amole or amole lily, has a range that extends from southwest Oregon down to San Diego, California. It grows in diverse habitat types throughout its range: valley grassland, chaparral, mixed evergreen forest, foothill woodland, closed-cone pine forest, northern coastal scrub, and coastal sage scrub. In the Klamath-Siskiyou it is most often found in foothill woodland, mixed conifer forest, and white oak or madrone woodland in the valley bottom.
Calflora classifies the genus Chlorogalum in the Agavaceae family, while the Oregon Flora Project classifies it in Asparagaceae. The Calflora classification of Chlorogalum in Agavaceae is surprising, as the only other plants in the Agavaceae family in the Klamath-Siskiyou include Camas (Camassia) and Rushlily (Hastingsia), and these are related to Agave and Yucca, including the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia). Who would’ve thought that soaproot is related to the Joshua tree? Amazing!
Depending on the location, soaproot will bloom between May and July. The flowers are borne on a very tall (up to 2′ tall) flowering stem. When you encounter a large stand of soaproot in flower it is a lovely sight, and when you do it will be in the evening or early morning, as the white soaproot flowers open in the evening, stay open overnight, and close up in the morning. Because of its flowering time, it is generally our lesser known, night flying pollinators that pollinate soaproot; however, if you watch soaproot flowers in the warmth of the early evening you may still find bumble bees and other day flying native bees and pollinators searching for pollen and nectar before nighttime comes on.
Soaproot flower popping open in the early evening.
Soaproot grows from a large, elongated bulb covered in thick coarse fibers. The juices of the bulb contain natural saponins that can be used as a soap — hence the name. Native American tribes within its range used soaproot for soap, but they also used the fibers of the bulb for brushes. The Miwok people reportedly roasted and ate the bulb as a winter food, cooking out the inedible saponins. Other tribes may have eaten soaproot too, as well as used it for various medicinal uses.
I can personally attest to the soapy qualities of soaproot — it does indeed make a fine soap!
After flowering and setting seed, soaproot goes dormant for the remainder of the summer and fall, pushing up new leaves in early winter.
Soaproot grows easily from seed, however, to reach the flowering stage it may take 3-5 years. The first few years the long, strap-like leaves will grow from the large, fibrous bulb, feeding the bulb for future flowers.
Klamath-Siskiyou Native Seeds has seed of soaproot in stock now! Just shoot us an email if you want to give this useful and unusual native bulb a try in your garden or native plant project.
Native bee pollinating soaproot flowers in the early evening.