The western soapberry tree (Sapindus drummondii) is a great medium sized tree for dry areas. Native to the southern U.S., mainly Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, as well as Mexico, this tree produces berries that can be used for soap. The soapberry tree has small, round fruit which contain the a poisonous chemical called saponin, which is toxic to humans. However, the berries also produce a soapy lather when rubbed together in water and is used for clothes washing in parts of Mexico.
The soapberry tree can be found growing in many areas of the southern Great Plains. The national champion is located at John Deere Headquarters outside of Kansas City, KS. I first found this tree in my hometown of Concordia, KS. Soapberry grows 15 to 50 feet tall and wide, with a few exceptions.
The wood of the soapberry is easily split, making it valuable for basket making. Though the fruit is poisonous, the seeds are used to make wooden buttons. Birds are also fond of the fruit, making this species useful for attracting birds to the garden. It is also the larval host for the Soapberry Hairstreak Butterfly.
Soapberry trees prefer full sun and well-drained soil. They are extremely drought tolerant once established and can grow in hot, dry spots in the landscape. They are good for shade or a wildlife friendly garden.
Keep on gardening!