Soapstone brush, fibers from the soapstone plant, and handle made with glue from the soapstone plant. Mid-19th century, California through Oregon. Although other uses, mainly used to clean the mortars when grinding acorns or maize. 6" x 2".
The most difficult part of making a soaproot brush is finding the soaproot plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum). Look for a rosette of long thin leaves along the ground with a yard-tall stalk at its center. In the spring or early summer, branchlets from the stalk bear wispy white flowers that open in the evening. By late summer and fall the plant becomes scraggly and parched, but still very noticeable among the fallen leaves of the foothill forests.
The early Californians excavated the root with a digging stick. With a little help from bare hands, the deep, hairy bulb pulls out easily. The contrast with the delicate flowers is surprising. Julia Parker, a Kashia Pomo Indian, learned the old ways at Yosemite, where she lived for many years with her husband’s grandmother, Lucy Parker, of Paiute Miwok lineage. Julia recites a prayer of thanks, or makes an offering, while gathering soaproot. The uses of a soaproot brush are many. The Chumash were typical, and they employed the brush for grooming hair, as well as for cleaning metates of meal when grinding, or even in cleaning the floor of their home. The Miwok used it for a hairbrush, for scrubbing cooking baskets, and for returning particles of acorn for the steady pounding of the bedrock mortar.
The many dry fibers of the outer layers of the soaproot are long and durable. They readily separate from the bulb, and one can make a brush from a single plant. However, most examples appear to include the fiber from three to five plants – some even more. For the California Indians the strong curved ends were used to advantage, and the other straight ends became the handle.
Barrett and Gifford did fieldwork among the Miwok around 1906. They recorded that the dry outer fibers of soaproot were laid so that these natural covers nested together and all faced the same way. The fibers were then bound temporarily with a withe about the middle. Next, soaproot juice was thoroughly worked into the handle end. The soaproot bulb was scraped to make this mucilaginous glue. At the same time, the handle was wrapped tightly, round and round, with string. Examples leave the handle almost pointed, a wedge that enlarges into the bristles at the base. Exposure to the sun and air for a day or two made the handle very hard. Pine pitch sometimes substituted for the soaproot juice.
Fernando Librado, the aged Chumash Indian, told Harrington in the early years of the twentieth century that after being tied fine with lak (Indian hemp) cordage and cut across the top to trim it, the handle of the Chumash soaproot brush was coated with asphaltum. A oak brand burned the bristles of the brush to make it even.
The Wukchumni Yokuts soaproot brush could be as short as 4 inches to as long as 9 inches. Larger brushes were for the hair and had coarse bristles and hook-like tips. To make it, they dug the root after the flower had faded and the fibers were at their toughest. They carefully removed the fibers and boiled the bulb in water until, according to Gayton, it became a plastic cream-colored mess. The fibers were formed and tied into a brush, the bulb mess pressed and shaped over the end as a handle, and tied in place with wrappings of string.
Thomas Mayfield, who had been raised by the Choinumni Yokuts in the 1850s, told of common household brushes made from a dried goose or duck wing, but he also described brushes of soaproot husks. The latter, he said, were tied with milkweed-fiber string and the handle covered with the mashed pulp of the soaproot bulb.
The Chukchansi Yokuts, recorded Gayton, used the soaproot brush for everything: cleaning acorn meal, washing and scrubbing baskets, even for sweeping the floor. They made them in various sizes, from 1 or 2 inches in width to 1 foot wide. July was when women went out with their digging sticks and came back with sackfuls of soaproots. There was no need to dry them. They removed the outer fibers and put the remaining bulbs on a bed of coals that were then buried, and the bulbs left to roast at least half a day. After removal from the coals, a soapy substance from the inside of each onion-like layer was scraped off with the teeth and chewed (In later times, a knife was used). The material, which turned white, was put into a basket to await use as a handle for the brush. The bottom, coarser, ends of the fibers would become the bristles. They were brought together and bound temporarily with sticks in the manner of the Miwok. The upper handle end was squeezed and twisted tight and bound up. Three layers of these, side by side, were used in an average brush and all were bound firmly together, likely with milkweed cordage. The handle was wrapped round and round with cordage. The soapy glue was smeared on the handle and smoothed. From the small temporary sticks that had held the bristles together, the brush was hung to dry in the sun or in the house. It took a week for the handle to completely harden.
In contrast to the Yokuts, the Tubatulabal dug the soaproot in March and April, when the plant was green. Bunches of fibers, each ¾ of an inch in diameter by 4 to 5 inches long, were twined together, side by side, at one end with string (three bunches for a hairbrush, four in a mealing brush). This made the brush flat and narrow. A Tubatulabal museum specimen mentioned by Vorgelin was apparently wrapped at the handle end with sinew and had a characteristic triangular shape (when viewed from the wider side).
An account by Bev Ortiz, describing Parker’s methods, elaborates on some brush-making concepts. The bulbs were gathered by Parker in late spring. She boiled them for thirty minutes with hair or fibers left on. She let them cool and removed the outer fibers. Next, she rubbed the bulbs against the back of a winnowing basket or any open-twined basket, continuing until all the pulp had been extracted and squeezed through the coarse weave of the basket. She spread a thin layer of this pasty pulp over the handle that had been bound with Indian hemp, and allowed it to dry for a day. Additional thin coatings followed, one for each of five or six days. One layer had to dry before the next was applied, and a layer could not be too thick, or the handle would crack. After the last coat, she wet her hand and rolled it over the handle, molding it to the final shape. It dried dull white or slightly tan in color.
Parker made water-resistant handles from heated pine pitch and charcoal dust. The pitch was heated to boiling, then the heat was lowered and charcoal added, enough to insure that the pitch should harden. The handle was dipped into the melted pitch and charcoal. As it cooled, but while still soft, Julia shaped it into the desired form.
All of the above methods likely produced good brushes.
The Versatile Bulb: The Many Uses of Soaproot
Months into the Donner party’s winter ordeal, an Indian man traveling past the group’s snowbound Sierra encampment gave one of its members an unfamiliar food. Donner party survivor Patrick Breen wrote in his diary on February 28, 1847, “Solitary Indian passed by yesterday come from the lake had a heavy pack on his back gave me 5 or 6 roots resembling Onions in shape taste some like a sweet potatoe, all full of little tough fibres.” Those “roots” were dried bulbs of the soaproot plant, and must have been a strange, but welcome, addition to the boiled oxhide, bones, and worse, that sustained Breen and his family.
Food seems an unusual use for a plant called soaproot. In fact, food is just one of many traditional California Indian uses for the plant, some apparently contradictory. Soap, food, glue, medicine, poison, and more – all from a hairy, fist-size underground bulb.
Even without the snow, the Donner party wouldn’t have found soaproot near their camp at Truckee (now Donner) Lake. The most common soaproot species, Chlorogalum pomeridianum, is widespread in California, but only below 5,000 feet. In grasslands, chaparral, and open woodlands, soaproot beings its annual cycle of growth with the fall or winter rains. That’s when the elongated bulb, layered like an onion and covered with coarse brown fibers, sends up several long, prostrate, wavy-edged leaves. Harvested in early spring and slow-roasted in a pit oven, those new leaves are sweet. So are the bulbs when they’re cooked the same way. But before cooking, the bulbs are bitter – and soapy.
Soap was likely the plant’s most important use for numerous California Indian tribes, as well as Spanish settlers, who called it amole. Crushing the bulb’s white inner layers produces a thin juice that foams easily with water. Organic (carbon-containing) compounds called saponins are responsible for the sudsiness: They reduce the surface tension of water, allowing small, stable bubbles to form. Indians used soaproot to clean their bodies, clothing, and buckskin blankets, but valued it most as a shampoo.
Roasting the bulbs thickens the juice into a glue used for sealing baskets, attaching feathers to arrow shafts, and even forming the handles of brushes fashioned from the bulb’s outer fibers. Green sap from the leaves made tattoo ink, and juice from the bulb made a hide tanning treatment, as well as medicines like antiseptics, laxatives, diuretics, and pain-relieving body rubs.
But one species’ panacea is another’s poison: The same plant that people used as food, for cleaning, and for healing, is toxic to gill breathers, and California Indians sometimes exploited that property in fishing. While the men of a village constructed a netlike weir across a stream, the women mashed hundreds of soaproot bulbs and tossed them into the water. In a very short time, dozens of fish floated to the surface.
“The surface-active saponins stun the fish by interfering with uptake of oxygen through the animals’ gills,” explains organic chemist Margareta Séquin, author of The Chemistry of Plants: Perfumes, Pigments, and Poisons. But the effect is reversible, so the Indians had to gather the fish quickly before they revived. Because saponins pass through the human digestive system without causing harm, fish caught with soaproot are edible.
But fishing with poisons is now illegal, and most non-Indians ignore native foods, so most of the attention soaproot gets these days is from insects that visit its flowers. From late spring into summer, numerous small white blossoms open late in the day on tall, branching stalks so slender the flowers look like low-hanging stars in the fading light. Each individual flower is ephemeral, opening a few hours before sunset, and fading before dawn.
Soaproot flowers are white and night-blooming, traits that, along with sweet fragrance, often identify moth-pollinated flowers. But contrary to popular assumption, soaproot flowers have no discernible scent. And while moths (as well as honeybees, hummingbird, and wasps) occasionally visit them, soaproot flowers are primarily pollinated by large native carpenter bees and bumblebees.
By late summer, dozens of seeds drop around the mother plant, some of which will take root and eventually form a sizable colony. A few weeks later, the leaves and flower stalks wither and blow away, and soon the only aboveground sign of the plant is a short tuft of brown fibers marking the location of its bitter, soapy, toxic, gluey, medicinal, and very sweet bulb.
PERIOD: Mid-19th century
SIZE: 7" x 2"