This deciduous shrub reaches 3 to 6 1/2 feet (90 cm. to 2 meters) tall. The twigs are gray and scaly with paired branches. Reddish-brown scales cover young twigs and buds.
Soapberry leaves are opposite, with short scaly petioles less than 1/8inch (3 mm.) long and without stipules. The ovate blades, 1/2 to 2 inches (1.2 to 5 cm.) long, 1/4 to 1 inch (0.6 to 2.5 cm.) wide, are rounded or blunt on both ends, and not toothed on the edges. The upper sides of the leaves appear green and slightly hairy with scattered star-shaped hairs, while underneath they are densely covered with reddish-brown scales and silvery, star-shaped hairs.
The yellowish or brownish small flowers measure about 1/4 inch (5 mm.) wide. These flowers, male and female on different plants (dioecious), bloom in short lateral spikes in the spring before the leaves form. The male flowers have a calyx of four spreading, scaly lobes and eight stamens. The fruits, elliptical, red or yellowish, and about 1/4 inch (6 mm.) long, look nearly transparent. They are fleshy and edible, but almost tasteless and bitter.
Soapberry is described as occurring throughout Alaska in dry well-drained soil, especially near lakes and rivers.
Kari says to make a tea with the stem and drink it for tuberculosis, or wash cuts and swellings with the tea.
Gathered in quantities, the fruits were eaten by Indians. Fruits pressed into cakes were smoked--the first sweet taste is replaced by a bitter taste (saponin), like quinine. Also, the fruits were mixed with sugar and water and beaten into an edible foam or froth that was used like whipped cream on desserts.
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Copyright © 1987 by Eleanor G. Viereck