Leaf of the Day: More Soapberry..

I am filling in the gaps for the show and needed another small soapberry painting. I think I am now cornering the market in Soapberry drawings. But I love this little tree so much. At the moment it is quietly poised for new growth but around the base of the tree are many tiny pretty seedlings. For more information about the wonderful soapberry, with which you can make jewellery, poison fish and wash your clothes, see my earlier posts here.

Recently I made these drawings for my good friend John, who in return will be drilling, polishing and stringing me some soapberries in a really professional way. Bartering drawings for beads; excellent! I will post the results on the blog. I am so delighted, I know they will look wonderful. I have tried to drill them myself with limited success and much bad language. They are very hard. No wonder they are called black pearls.

A trio of the seeds..

A delicate little seedling, and a tiny watercolour which I had done some time ago in the summer.

John also keeps a blog with wonderful photographs and observations called “Nunketest” recording the flora fauna and history of the Lake Nippennicket area. “Nunketest”, from the Wampanoag Native American word meaning “Lake of the Red Waters”. I tune in often to learn about more northern wildlife and to remind myself what snow looks like. 🙂

The Soapberry again..

The new drawing.

Framed up with its companions

Leaf of the day: Soapberry, The Dark Side

Continuing the fascinating study of the soapberry tree, I now come to the ageing berry. It now becomes a dark and mysterious object with a black seed rattling inside. As it shrivels up, the berry case blackens and dries out, eventually disintegrating to leave the hard black seed exposed. These seeds are beautiful and vary from matt black to blue black to reddish black. They are very hard and quite weighty and feel cold, like a stone bead, so it is not a surprise that they are used for jewellery. They are sometimes known as black pearls and were used by Buddhist monks for rosary beads. (And yes I will be having a go myself, once I have made the soap.) I picked these up from the the ground beneath the tree, nature having obligingly hulled them for me.

I did mention that Soapberries are slightly poisonous and on fish the saponins are particularly quick acting. Indigenous peoples around the world have used “fish poisoning” as a way of fishing for hundreds of years. Apparently the toxin acts on the respiratory organs of the fish without affecting their edibility, and has the effect of temporarily immobilising them, allowing fishermen to gather up the stunned fish as they float to the surface. It is good to know that those who escape and find themselves in unpolluted waters can survive and live another day. It may seem unsporting but if you are hungry ..?

I have said before how much I admire nature’s design, its ingenious engineering and elegant structures. The design of the barred section where the “lid” fits is fascinating. Unfortunately I don’t yet know the correct name for this part of a plant or understand how it develops or from exactly what part of the flower. In reality it is a fragile and delicate structure which becomes more pronounced as the berry dries out and seems very often to be the first part to decay completely. It reminded me of the barred visor of a medieval helmet, or to drag me out of the 15th century, Darth Vader..

I had no idea, before I looked for a handy image, that so many replica helmets were available to me. It would cut quite a dash on my cycle rides but I guess no one would turn a hair here, assuming no doubt that I had just escaped from Disney for the day.

Soapberry, Old Berries and Pearl

Leaf of the Day: More Soapberry

I spent far too long at the Gardens today .. far too long. But it was a lovely day and just to be outside was a treat. I walked for miles along paths I seldom visit, saw a handful of people and really had the 44 acres almost to myself. And today I really did see a hummingbird. It was feeding on the little flowers of the toad lily, a beautiful tiny flower I have yet to draw. I include my blurry photograph.

I know they are fairly common here, but it is the first time I have seen one properly. I think it is probably a female Rufous Hummingbird.

Back to the Soapberry Tree.
I gathered quite a few soapberries to make the soap with. There are many small cottage industries on the Internet selling soapberries in various forms but it’s nice to pick your own. I think I must be the only person in Orlando who can be bothered which seems a shame.
I realised I had not included a photo of the tree yet. Here is a bunch of unripe berries and one fallen on the ground.

They start smooth and green and then turn the amber resiny colour and wrinkle up, eventually blackening, the outer case rotting away and the leaving the hard black seed.
There are pretty small scented flowers which I have missed. Here are photos of the flowers and fruit from Oklahoma Biological Survey website here

This second photo shows very well the translucent nature of the berries.

In India, as well as a cleanser, the soapberry, known in Hindi as reetha is used in Ayurvedic medicine and Soapberry powder along with shikakai, from the acacia tree, is indicated as being extremely good for hair and scalp conditions.
I also found out that in Brazil it was called Soldier’s soap, as, rather obviously, soldiers were encouraged to wash with it. Its mild insecticidal properties also make it good for removing head lice which I imagine would have come in very useful for soldiers. There are many other “medicinal” uses for this little berry but it should be noted that it is slightly poisonous. ….you can also clean the silver with it.

Today I have drawn a young berry. It’s green and smooth and not ready to fall yet and still has its lid on.

Green Soapberry… with lid on.

Leaf of the Day: The Soapberry Tree Suite.. The Heaven Sent Cleaner

Today a couple more sketches of the Soapberry, this time berries and seedlings. I am hoping to do a series of more finished pieces, so that I have a Soapberry “portrait” set.
There is so much to like about this tree, so here is a little more about it.
The Soapberry, this particular one is Sapindus marginatus, is from the interesting family of soap producing trees. This is not some folksy old wives tale but in some regions of the world an industry producing a good biodegradable detergent for clothes and dishes and even as an ingredient for shampoo. The “soap” comes from the outer covering of the berries which contain the amazing natural detergent “saponin”. It works incredibly well! Here are just three foaming berries, they left my hands absolutely super squeaky clean. and they seem to go on and on.

There is a charming short film clip here at Soapberry.org. with a commentary in Chinese /English showing you how to use them and how the tree “leads people return to the nature.” It tells how the soapberry (its Chinese name, Wu Huan Zi, means “no dust”) seeing the terrible state of the polluted earth arrived from heaven to help us clean up our grubby selves and environment. “He want to help the earth recovered back his most pure status. He smiles, and if you have him with you, he then do the clarifying and recovering work for you, not count for money, not count for name”
How lovely!

Basically you put three or four in a muslin bag and run them under water, rub them around a bit and, hey presto, you have a foamy detergent that you can use to wash yourself, your clothes and the dishes in too. To do the laundry, it’s 5 to 8 berries in a bag depending on load and how grubby your clothes are. The liquid is supposed to help skin conditions, is good for those with sensitive skin, is a mild antibacterial, and can be used to discourage pests on your garden plants.

Make your own soap
To make a basic liquid you take two handfuls of soapberry “shells” and 3 litres of water, bring to the boil simmer for 30 minutes and allow to steep overnight. Strain and compost the shells if you have a compost heap. You will then have a concentrated eco cleaning fluid. It is that simple. I am going to get more berries tomorrow and try them and I am one of those skin allergy types so anything natural is always worth a try. If the liquid is as gentle as claimed it will also make a very good natural paintbrush cleaner.
Indigenous peoples in America have known about these cleansing berries for thousands of years of course, but we come along with our chemicals and fancy packaging and take over, don’t we?

At the moment the berries are falling. They are a translucent yellow almost like amber, and you can see the dark shape of the black seed inside. I just love their comical design. The part which attaches to the branch is like a flip top lid or two ears so they look like a bunch of strange vessels or gathering of roly poly fat little animals… delightful!
In the words of the Chinese film , “soapberry brings back the natural to the human. ” Tomorrow I shall be gathering some more heavenly helpers.

So here is a sketch of the roly poly berries and two hula dancing seedlings. I would never make a serious botanist would I?

Rolling Berries and Dancing Seedlings

Leaf of the Day: Charcoal Soapberry

The weather now is cool in the mornings, fresh and beautiful and today we cycled for miles from Winter Park to Baldwin Park. We continued along the newly discovered (to us) Cady Trail, which then becomes something else and we cycled along that too until my cycle gears disintegrated and we had to return to a repair shop.
Cycling can be a joy here or a complete and utter nightmare. My jaundiced blog post Cycling in Orlando is almost ready for publication. But today was lovely and there were different lakes and different views. However Chris did, irritatingly, point out that due to lack of rain this week the damn plantains have all moved back to the shore line..sigh…

Back in the “studio” the nature table is overflowing with bits and pieces I have picked up to draw and paint but I had decided to do a series about the soapberry tree which I started here in Bugs in the Paint #2. It will be a sort of extended study so there will be lots of them this coming week. Today I decided to do just one charcoal and work on a bigger sheet than normal this time 14 x 17 inches. It’s a messy medium but allows for some lovely marks and velvety blacks.
Charcoal was one of the very first artist’s mediums. The finest is usually willow, whose beautiful thin sticks still show the shape of the twigs.

Some 7 years ago now and lacking inspiration, I set myself the task of producing 60 large drawing in a week. The theme was roughly bugs and plants ( no change there then) the drawings were on 30 x 20 inch sheets so lots of room for big marks. It was a great exercise for ideas, as the first 10 are easy then as those first ideas run out, you have to get more experimental and hopefully, more creative. Many of them were in charcoal. Here are just three which perhaps show the versatility of this lovely medium.

The slightest touch of your finger can change the subtlety of the surface and tone, or you can make big sweeping linear marks.
What happened to them? Well they are in a folder somewhere, awaiting the time when having big bugs on the wall becomes very fashionable. I could be waiting some time.

I have included these details of the soapberry as I like to crop in and see something different. It also shows the marks that you can achieve with charcoal.

The soft white smudgy marks are made with a putty rubber, harder edged marks with a plastic eraser, and general smudging with fingers or anything else you might have to hand.

It’s a gorgeous, sensitive and underrated medium.


Charcoal Soapberry

Leaf of the Day: Bugs in the Paint #2 and the Joy of Easels

Portable easels are like folding deckchairs and easy assembly furniture,they are treacherous, seldom really portable without your own dedicated sherpa, may fold, if you are lucky and are fingertrappingly unpredictable. If they are heavy enough to withstand a light breeze they are often too heavy to carry and then there is the tilt or not tilt issue. When you get a new one, it is advisable to try it out in the privacy of your own home. There can be nothing worse for your artistic credibility than to be seen by the public wrestling with your easel.. you can just hear the comments ” well if she can’t even get the easel up !”

I bought this … not, I have to say, the $500 “engineered by engineers” model, but something modestly priced that doubles up as a camera tripod too and tells me it is light and portable. So before setting off this morning for my new-resolution-plein-air-painting trip I thought I should try it out. I am not usually baffled but this took more than 5 minutes so resulted in a slight fit of bad temper. It’s a nice easel but has a stupid design flaw. There are two canvas support brackets which you have to fit…that’s fine..but when you come to fold it up, it does not fit into the carry bag with the supports still in place ….it’s all very boring, but it means that when you get to your location you have to re-fit these fiddly supports which themselves rely on a wing bolts and their accompanying small loose nuts…which of course immediately fall off into 10 inches of leaf mold. There are no spares… Another problem with this easel is that it does not tilt, which, for a watercolourist is a bit of a problem. I do have one that tilts but it does not fold down small enough for bike/backpack transport… sigh.. All I want to do is just go and paint something.

I have over the years had quite a few sketching easels and have never found one that is just right but now, as I have to cycle 3 miles to the gardens, the question of portability, weight, size, etc is even more important…then of course there is the question of the right backpack?… and then the right bike? I could go on for days.

Anyway I eventually arrived at the garden and had decided earlier in the week to make some sketches of the Soapberry tree and had, that day, made a quick pencil sketch and a small colour sketch.
The only reason for taking the easel is that there are no handy nearby benches, but I shouldn’t have worried about the public as this is a quiet part of the garden.

Initial pencil complete with muddy marks

Small 4 x 6″ sketch

There is an intention somewhere in my mind to make a series of drawings of this delightful tree. I enjoy working in series and sets and today I was just looking at the tree and the light. It’s a lovely time of year as the light is low in the morning but changes very quickly, so the few sketches I made reflect (somewhat) the shifting light. I made 4 small sketches and a some larger ones..I like some of them.

First sketch no sun

First sun on leaves.

More low sun

Sun hitting top branches more

Full sun on the tops of the branches

If I had to choose just one it would be this one below where the first sun is catching the leaves.

Morning Soapberry

Leaf of the Day: Holly and Toog and a Foaming Berry

I went down to Leu this morning, just to see if I could get any last minute inspiration for my remaining leaves. Also I wanted to see the new planting that has been happening over the weekend. Near the lake they have taken out some of the uncontrollable and rampant exotics and are planting native Florida species.
One of these is a Soapberry tree Sapindus marginatus which is a nice little tree whose seeds have the amazing property of foaming when mixed with water. The berries contain saponin which is a natural form of detergent, and if you wish to find out how to use them, this web page The Complete Soapnut Guide will tell you. In Mexico and tropical America they have been used as soap, and in addition, the chemicals in the berries ( saponins) were found to be “toxic to cold-blooded vertebrates, and crushed soapberry fruits were thrown into ponds and streams to stupefy the fish so that they would float to the surface to be gathered.”
info from WaynesWord website here

The blue black marble like seeds are known as “black pearls” throughout the tropics, and are used for jewellery.
What a useful tree this is , I look forward to maybe a seed pod or two later in the year.

However, I had to finish two more leaves today. I do now have a new lamp which is very good and is a bright white light, so the lighting problem has eased. I have drawn these two leaves before. Chinese Holly here and the Toog tree leaf here. It was a challenge to get the shine on the holly leaf and I still felt I want to sharpen everything up a bit and get more contrast into the leaf but it will have to do for now.

Chinese Holly and Toog