Archive for eco

Wildcraft: learn while you play

Simply put, I love the idea behind this board game! Wildcraft is a Candyland (remember that?) style board game for ages 4 to adult which teaches kids how to identify wild herbs and about their medicinal and culinary uses. Sure wish this game had been around when I was a kid! En route to Grandma’s favorite huckleberry patch, players encounter wild herbs which are stored for use as remedies for various “troubles” such as hunger and injuries. Here are a few of the beautifully illustrated cards:

Echinacea Bee Sting

If you have young children and are trying to encourage them to look more closely at the world around them, this is a great way to get them thinking about plants without it coming off like a school lesson. Heck, even if your “kids” are 40, there’s plenty of opportunity for fun to be had. Additionally, the game emphasizes teamwork and comes with all sorts of excellent bonuses like an organic cookbook and wall chart of wild herbs and their medicinal uses. If all board games were this practically educational, kids would probably be better prepared for life by the time they hit our mainstream schooling system, where, to be honest, all bets are off as to whether they actually receive the knowledge to which they are entitled. Given that the game is completely made in the USA of recycled cardboard and vegetable inks, it makes a perfect gift for parents of youngsters that you know!

We all love to play, and cloaking excellent knowledge in a game makes it so much easier to digest. Know of any other great environmental education games for children or adults? Please share!

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Healing Yourself Naturally Part One

Happy New Year, Solarious fans!  Having just gotten over a nasty flu, it seems a perfect moment to discuss natural healing techniques.  The pharmaceutical industry is one of the largest in the world.  Yet despite the trillions of dollars that have been poured into research, marketing, and sales of these medicines, we as a planet are sicker than ever.  We may live longer, but we live on crutches, both physical and chemical, which limit the value of the lives we are leading.  How can this be so?  Well, ask a thousand doctors and you’ll probably get as many answers.  However a few things cannot be denied.  Today, we’ll look at the reasons we have to take better care of ourselves than ever, and then tomorrow, we’ll discuss ways to get ourselves back on our feet without supporting the drug companies, who are responsible for some pretty atrocious acts upon our earth.

The quality of the food that you eat today is nothing like the food your parents grandparents ate.  Even if you consider yourself a healthy eater, a vegetarian/vegan, follow a strict macrobiotic diet, whatever, the quality of the actual food that goes into your body has declined over time.   This is the unappetizing consequence of the industrial farming system, one in which plants and animals are bred purely for their appearance and ability to sit for long periods on store shelves, rather than their inherent nutritional qualities.  Of the hundreds of apple varieties available in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, commercial growers winnowed down to just five or six different varieties that were chosen for two characteristics: sweetness and the ability to look good on the shelf.  Given that apples are grown on grafted trees, all of the apples you enjoy today are identical genetic clones of or direct offspring of these clones of the aforementioned five varieties.  Seriously.  That Jonagold you crave?  A Jonathan apple and a Golden delicious.  For a really excellent discussion of this whole quagmire of genetic reduction in this noble fruit, check out “The Botany of Desire” by Michael Pollan.  Actually, go read it anyway, you’re going to love it.

But back to the larger point: as we reduce the genetic variety available in the foods we eat, we reduce the possibly helpful combinations of nutrients available to our bodies.  We also increase the chances that our food supplies will all be stricken by some bug or another and never recover, therefore extinguishing that source of nutrition from our available diets forever.  There is talk that the banana plant, the most harvested fruit on the planet, may go extinct within the next fifty years because almost all commercially grown bananas are of only one variety, which has recently been attacked in Asia by a lethal disease that spraying cannot stop.  It is only a matter of time, scientists theorize, until that disease makes its way to South America and poof!  No more bananas for the world.  Scary stuff.  And of course this same scenario applies to things like cows, for you burger lovers out there.

So now you realize how important the quality of the food you put into the system is.  But have you ever thought about the processes to which your food is subjected before you ever get to lay hands on it?  When you microwave food, pasteurize it, can it, or freeze it, there can occur chemical and physical changes within the food that alter your body’s ability to utilize the nutrients within.  Some nutrients are outright destroyed by these processes, all of which are relatively new scientific techniques in the last hundred years or so. Eat a freezer dinner, which has probably been subjected to all of the above processes at one point or another, and, well, I THINK there are some nutrients in there, but…

So your body’s immunity is likely lowered simply because of diet, unless you are eating raw, locally produced vegetables and perhaps small amounts of locally and sustainably raised meats and fish.  Now, what about your cell phone?  What?  My phone, you say?  Okay, not your phone specifically, but the myriad of wireless and electrical devices that crowd today’s home and urban landscape.  Electricity moves in waves, and waves have frequencies.  Most people don’t think of humans as electrical creatures but we, too, vibrate at certain frequencies within our bodies, as electricity is conducted around our bodies.  Every nerve operates this way, and every thought in your brain is an electrical impulse.  Now the thing about waves is that they are affected by each other, either in a complimentary or destructive fashion.  So all that electromagnetic frequency flying through the air DOES affect you, whether you like it or not.  Remember when they started to wonder whether cell phone rotted your brain a few years back?  Well, they never really publicized the results of those studies, because the reality is that putting a wave-emitting device up to your head for hours a day just is not good for you.  The scariest implication of this is that in today’s world, there are really very few places you can go to get away from the invasive waves flying overhead.   Makes you look at that cell phone dead spot in a whole new light.

Add to the above the increased daily stress of living a high paced life in today’s society – we sleep less, work more, travel on germ infested planes, come into contact with more people, take fewer rest periods, and exercise WAY less – coupled with the fact that we have largely lost touch with the natural cycles of the earth such as getting up and going to bed with the sun each day as our ancestors have done since the beginnings of time, and it’s easy to see why our bodies’ defenses are at an all time low when it comes to fighting off what are increasingly potent viruses, bugs, and mutations that cause illness and death.

You can do a lot for yourself just by making sure you eat as well as possible and get plenty of rest.  And DRINK LOTS OF WATER everyone!  Your body has a higher water content than an apple, so if you’ve ever watched one wither away on your countertop, you know exactly what’s going on in your body when you eschew this wonder fluid.  But these are the basics.  Check back tomorrow, when we’ll cover medicinal herbs, electromagnetic frequency stabilization techniques, and other low-chemical ways to bring the temple that is your body back into greater harmony with yourself and the earth around you.

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Making Your Computer Carbon Neutral

I’ve admitted it before… I love my computer, and giving it up is out of the question.  But I do understand that while the internet saves me millions of miles of travel a year and countless hours spent locating far-flung information, the computer itself uses plain ol’ polluting energy and requires a lot of rare and potentially hazardous materials in its manufacture which are as often as not disposed of improperly.  So how to green the central machine?

First up, the average of one pound of CO2 emissions put out daily by computers worldwide.  Luckily, the wonderful social, email and action network Care2 has already thought about that, and nicely offers you the option to neutralize that carbon… with a single click! And if taking 10 seconds to sequester some CO2 to offest your surfing is too much to ask, I expect to see your name in the newspaper soon, because you must be REALLY busy on something important.  Visit Care2’s Daily Click to Donate page here to ease your digital burden on the planet today, and while you’re there, click to donate to 9 other great causes like saving tiger habitat, preventing breat cancer, and preserving marine wetlands.

screenshot002

Next, consider efficiency when purchasing computer components.  It may surprise you to know that a vast majority of computer components are manufactured in one of a handful of factories in the same town in China.  One that barely even existed twenty five years ago.  To read all about it, pick up the fascinating global travel book “Confessions of an Eco-Sinner” by Fred Pearce (2008).   Though he only deals with this particular product for a chapter, the whole book is filled with amazing (and scary) tales of how the things you take for granted make it into your shopping bag.  But back to that computer… Assuming that practices amongst these competitors are relatively equal, and given that they are all run by guys who went to school together as youth this is proabably safe, you won’t gain much by purchasing an Acer over a Compaq.  That doesn’t mean, however that all manufacturers are equal.  Some voluntarily, and some in response to the European Union’s RoHS Directive which calls for elimination of certain toxic metals from their computers (see this Treehugger article for more information), computer manufacturers have started to take notice and make greener PCs.  Apple and Toshiba are notable leaders in this movement, though others are jumping onboard every day.  I’m waiting for the day one releases a totally non-toxic and recyclable computer… and while wishing, can it be compostable too?

If you’ve got your machine itself under control, there are still ways to go further, by examining the source of the energy that goes into your plug.  I’m a huge fan of surfing the web at Whole Foods Markets, because the company has a policy of purchasing renewable (wind) energy credits to offset the electricity used at each of its stores.  So when you play Tetris while eating your lunch, you’re actually helping to stimulate the alternative energy market and doing so in a totally renewable way.

Of course, they’re a popular store, so if you can’t get a seat there, you’re may be forced to strike out on your own.  There is, of course, the off-grid option of generating your own electricity with wind, solar, or micro-hydro.  These are the golden children of rugged off-griddists everywhere, and one will likely be a pretty good fit for your area.  If you don’t have the ability to install your own generation system, consider paying a little premium on your power bill for the Green Power option.  Similar to Whole Foods’ arrangement, customers who purchase green power get the satisfaction of knowing that their purchases contribute to the development of renewable energy portfolios while enjoying the on-demand power we all expect.  Or you can lease solar panels from a company that charges you a bill like any other utility but sells the power you generate using their panels back to the grid.  Solar without the start-up costs.

Speaking of power, here’s to all you night-owls out there! You see centrally generated power (utility-style) must usually be produced at the rate of greatest demand within a day.  So even though 1-5 pm is the peak power usage, at night, the generators are pumping out the same amount of juice to supply a drastically lower demand. Where does all this power go?  Some municipalities have constructed power recycling schemes, such as Los Angeles DWP’s practice of pumping water uphill at night to use for generating hydro power during daylight peak demand hours.  Other cities let this power go to waste.  That is why power use rates are so much lower at night, because utilities hope to entice people to use this cut-price power whenever possible.  So go ahead and burn a little midnight oil (figuratively of course) to take advantage of this financial reward.

Peak vs. Off-Peak

Peak vs. Off-Peak

And lastly, please, friends, recycle your computer responsibly when it reaches the end of its useful life.  Replacing single components that go bad is almost always a cheaper option than buying a whole new machine, so consider that first before declaring it dead.  But when it is, there are organizations across the globe which will take your computer, make any necessary repairs, and give it to a person in need.  Many states won’t even let you toss computer equipment legally, so you’ll be doing your civic duty, too.  If you don’t, sadly, the common practice is to let children pick through the toxic rubble of old electronics, pulling valuable metals out and stripping copper off boards in acid vats wihtout any protective measures.  It sounds like one of this “Save a child with a dollar a day” commercials, but it really happens.  Don’t be the reason little Pradeep gets cancer by the age of fifteen.

All said, the fact you can shop online rather than at retail stores, commit acts of generosity such as campaigning for social rights and making donations to worthy causes, and research innovations that make your life greener in so many ways makes the computer a world-saving tool no matter what you do to mitigate its environmental consequences.  But doesn’t doing it green just feel so much better?

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My Letter to Obama about Energy and the Environment

Well, okay, it was to his energy and environment transition staff, but hey, you never know!  One of the things about this upcoming administration to which I’m most looking forward is their commitment to getting public feedback as a regular part of the legislative process.  So of course, when they asked for my (and your!) opinion on what we as a nation can do to invest in alternative energy and the environment, I had to do my part.  You can too by visiting http://change.gov/page/s/energyenviro and sending them a message of your own.  Below, in somewhat edited form, is the environmental and energy wish list I hope to see in this country in the upcoming years in hopes that it will foster debate here on the site and elsewhere about the most important conservation and resource generation issues we face and how they may be solved.  What do you want to see happen?  Comment below and then head over to Change.gov to participate today!

***** My Energy and Environment Wish List *****

I think the most important thing that people need to realize is how the current energy supply affects prices and the need for more infrastructure.  For example, the concept of peak load on power plants: though conservation initiatives often highlight using off-peak power, rarely is it explained that central utilities must offer enough wattage to supply the highest moment of demand in a year.  Therefore, redesign of total power loads is highly beneficial, such as the advantages offered by off-peak charging of electric/hybrid cars (and tractors/industrial vehicles?), use of alternative energy storage programs such as that by LADWP (which uses off-peak hours to pump water uphill so that peak hour demand can be offset using hydro power and the excess supply built into the system is not wasted), programs which reward consumers for reducing their PEAK POWER LOAD (and therefore also their total power bills!), and more localized power production which loses substantially less than the 50% average wattage which travels over wires and is better tuned to the needs of a particular location.  This form of savings would allow existing power plants to use their energy much more efficiently and reduce need for new utility construction all while increasing our national security from foreign attack.  (Oh yeah, and phase out incadescent lights and unnecessary “standby” mode appliances!)

Mandatory minimum Leed certification levels (or some similarly arranged standard) for new construction starts and promoting eco-remodeling over creating new buildings where possible (with corresponding tax incentives for each) will go a long way toward reducing environmental toxins and energy use loads while stimulating the building and sustainable material markets.  Of course, tax credits for passive solar design and thermal resources (geo and solar) should be in the mix to highlight these low-impact technologies, which have relatively fast break-even points.  Tax credits for using non-toxic building materials and for installing “greenswitches” (which allow you to deactivate wall outlets and lights from a single light switch by the door when you leave the house for the day or go to sleep at night) would be great too!  Also, promoting organic food and material production greatly reduces our overall need for petroleum supplies (for pesticides and herbicides), while helping to restore America’s soil health and ecosystems.  Community garden programs could also use a boost, maybe by offering a green roof gardening program on existing public roofs, producing food for community programs while reducing the buildings’ energy needs.  And incentives for greening cities (like the Million Trees LA program), with special emphasis on using plants which produce edible fruits, nuts, and other foodstuffs to increase urban agricultural density and further buouy city budgets (an interesting example of a group trying to promote this is fallenfruit.org).  Perhaps also offer incentives for people who spend locally and stimulate their towns’ and cities’ economies and efficiency?  (RecycleBank has an successful program along these lines)

More research should be done on using nature’s own arsenal of environmental restorers and protectors (for example, using mushrooms for reforestation and toxic chemical environmental remediation).  We can also use certain restorative biofuel feed crops to rebalance the natural soil cycle, preventing erosion and therefore water pollution.  Our water, in particular, is a resource we cannot continue to allow to be polluted by heavy metals and current waste streams.  Providing farms better incentives for (or harsher punishments for not) properly collecting animal wastes that end up in the water supply.  Also, active superfund sites, especially mining sites, need to be addressed as soon as possible to prevent further contamination downstream.

As for alternative energy sources, there are so many different exciting technologies out there in the prototype and early market stages, the next phase (besides, of course, funding more R&D and business development!) will be ensuring that we have qualified technicians who can utilize these developments and technologies within the current marketplace competitively.  Offering more GANN-style grants for alternative energy and resource management studies at both undergrad and grad levels and creating and/or expanding a GreenCorps (modeled after the PeaceCorps) program which could first be challenged to green all federal and governmental facilities are both interesting options.  They can also promote public awareness of the consequences of their waste disposal actions and maintain a national resource database, which would help to source materials from within the country and with minimal transport for manufacture and also further educate people about the natural resources of the areas in which they dwell.  America could easily create lease or loan programs modeled after Japan’s successful solar leasing program or the SELF (Solar Electric Light Fund) loan initiatives in developing nations.  Both have been extremely successful in increasing solar adoption in times of economic despair (Japan) and area with fewer monetary resources (SELF), and could easily be applied to other alternative technologies.  Cuba’s solar school mandate is another great application of initial investment leading to long-term savings.

Two side notes on R&D for alternative energy technologies.  First, we need further development of integrated technologies, such as solar roof shingles, which serve multiple purposes and fit within current design models.  Currently, most alt technologies are add-ons – you mount them onto something else that’s already there.  With integrated technologies, the need to do this would be reduced, such as cars that have wind driven motor rotation when traveling above certain speeds (when wind can be effectively funneled through existing structures).  The other side note is that the digital divide, while not expressly an environmental problem, is something that we and all other nations will have to address in the coming years.  If we could fund people seeking ways to power computers without grid power or create highly efficient digital components, this will obviously help reduce future energy burdens on the US and globally.

(well, it continues beyond here, but congratulations if you’re still reading, ’cause I know I can really get talking when it comes to saving the earth! ) What are your ideas? Do you have stories of people (other than the listed examples) already doing these things?

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Eco-conscious Christmas

It can be hard, come holiday time, to stick to your eco-guns when purchasing gifts for others.  After all, even though you LOVE your NatureMill composter and would like to buy one for the world, to your auntie Mary, no matter how well you explain the concept, it’s just plug-in box full of trash.  So unless you want some serious regifting going on, you might want to find  some products that sneak your eco-conscious sensibility in the back door, while your none-the-wiser fam revels in their tasty and chic gifts.

For some eco-chic clothing that doesn’t slack on style, check out nau.com, a socially conscious outwear company that offers coats galore for the dark days of winter.  They offer all sorts of other great clothes too, but hey, it’s cold out there!  I especially like the Shroud of Purrin Hoodie (yes, they have a good sense of humor!), which takes the classic hoodie and adds some super soft lovin’ to the inside, while sporting class it up cut details that take it from the gym to your dinner date without a change of clothing.  For urbanites, they also offer the super soft coat in a trench version, shown below.  The best thing about nau.com is that for any purchases made, 2% of the sale price will be donated to your choice of five eco-conscious causes.

Of course some people are receptive to getting green gifts, and for them, please, promote away!  Perhaps you could send a sheep or cow (in their name, not to their doorstep, can you imagine the shipping?) via Heifer International, an organization that lets you adopt a livestock animal or flock of birds for a family in a developing country.  Or maybe buy a TerraPass with carbon offset points for someone you love, helping them to green their whole year.  It’s a little less cute than a smiling cow, but promotes alternative energy development and comes with a convenient calculator that will let you offset individual actions such as that holiday plane flight to visit Grandma. And if you’re stuck for green ideas, they also have a gift store on their site which makes it easy to pick up eco-gadgets for anyone in the family.

And finally, if you want to give a present to your whole town, visit RecycleBank.com and express your city’s interest in joining their recycling program, which actually PAYS YOU TO RECYCLE (which you do anyway, right?  So it’s free money!!!)  When a city signs up with RecycleBank, the company puts RFID tags on your curbside recycle bins and on the trucks that come and pick up their contents.  For every pound you recycle, the truck logs the weight of your bin, and you earn points and coupons which can be redeemed at local businesses for free or discounted stuff, thereby stimulating your local economy and encouraging recycling at the same time!  Some cities currently using the program have seen recycling rates go up from around 3% to almost 30%, and the cities themselves save hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in reduced waste transport costs to the landfill, which they split with the company.  So next year, there will finally be enough money in the town budget to buy LED lights to power the annual light festival, or switch to CFLs in city buildings, saving money (and landfill space!) for generations to come.

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Looking Under the Surface of “Green”

Ever heard of the game Energyville?  It’s an online game where you name a town, and then, Sims’ style, decide how you’re going to power it using the available technologies.  Each has their own pros and cons, and costs different amounts of money, environmental damage and national security.  Then the game takes you through the years, showing you how the choices you make affect the city.  On the surface, it sounds like a good concept.  But play it once or twice, and you might start to wonder just why it is that biofuels always “get more expensive due to lack of corn supplies” in every scenario presented, though petroleum, natural gas, and shale oil seem to get better with age.  Or how even if you have your town fully powered with alternative energy, the game won’t let you advance to the next level without adding some petrol to the mix.  I played the game several times, and Beautopia never lived up to its name, no matter how valiantly I erected wind towers and solar panel racks.  Well, it did LOOK pretty, but my score couldn’t compete with the oil guzzlers and nuclear supporters out there.

Still, even with a marked slant evident in the policital events presented, the game is an interesting look at how we do need to think about the future when making energy choices of today.  If someone would come back with a more REAL version of this game, instead of Chevron, which is the presenter of Energyville, there could be a lot to learn from it.  If you want to check out the game, it’s at:

www.willyoujoinus.com/energyville

In a greater sense, this game underlines what seems true in most of life.  Most things seem okay on the surface, pretty kind and helpful even, but a little digging (not much in this case) reveals that “free” offers contain strings, “impartial” observers are paid for their opinions, and even organizations set up to help others usually have their own agendas that can affect their actual aid.  Green living is a noble goal, and of course I encourage you to follow the natural path.  Just be aware of the greenwash, as they call it, because for every understanding and caring soul who enters the green “industry”, there also enters a conglomerate like Safeway or KMart, hoping to make a buck.  Learning to take only what you need from these giants is a lifelong game in and of itself.

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Bathing Al Fresco

Ah, nothing like the wilderness to make you reevaluate your relationship to material goods. This past weekend, I arrived on the trail as the clouds and fog lifted from atop the mountains I was entering. A man told me it had been raining for three days… not good news (or so I thought) in the flash-flood prone desert. But it turned out, hiking after the rain was like a hidden secret ritual for many, who avoided the 100+ degree weather by following a storm through the hills. It was beautiful.

Superstitions after Rain

My hiking buddy and I set up camp by a lovely spring-fed stream in the heart of the wilderness. Barely any signs of humans passing through the area in decades, so the water was about as clean and refreshing looking as any can be. I wanted to go for a swim in the natural rock pools and then bathe in the open sun. But when I pulled my shampoo bottle out of my bag, and then looked in the water at the bullfrog tadpoles and other life, I couldn’t bring myself to use any unnatural products in such a pristine place.

Of course, I wouldn’t have thought twice about using that same shampoo at home, though it all ends up in the same water somewhere downstream. Conversely, I wouldn’t have touched water that had a tadpole in it at home, no matter how clearly I could see the bottom. As I said, sometimes it takes a little unfamiliar scenery to make up evaluate our own habits without colored lenses. So I chose to forgo the bath and simply enjoy a swim. Lovely.

When I arrived home, I was determined not to let this happen again, to find myself a potential life-killing polluter in one of the few places not already actively under attack by humankind. So I started researching natural soap, remembering something about “soaproot” from somewhere back in 5th grade when we studied the pioneers crossing the great American plains. Turns out, there are SEVERAL “soaproots”, and had I known what I was doing, there was likely one of them within fifty feet of the proposed bathing locale.

Ever found yourself in a similar bind? Here’s the skinny on natural soap:

Soaproot2

Indian Soaproot, Bouncing Bet, Soapwort

“Wherever Poison Oak grows chances are you will find Soap Root growing. You can harvest Soap Root anytime of the year and it looks the same year round, except for having tall flowering stalks in the spring. The part to use is the bulbous root, so you will need to dig it up. Usually one bulb is all you will need. Peel off the brown, furry outer covering until the white layer underneath is exposed. While using, keep it in a plastic bag to keep from drying out.” – naturalfamilyhome.com

This is the most commonly known of the soap-producing plants. It produces a nice lather for washing both body and clothes, and according to legend, it was also used by the Apaches to catch fish by putting it in the water. It has the most “bang for the buck” of lathering plants.

Yucca

The yucca plant comes in a wide variety of species, but all share the potential for lather. Some people recommend using the root for bathing, but using the root kills the plant. For a small task like bathing, you can simply pull off one leaf from the plant, shred the leaf into strips, and rub them back and forth in your hands with water until a lather forms. (Incidentally, this is also the first step in making yucca twine, another useful thing to know in an emergency!) Use this mix like a pre-soaped washcloth. This plant is so common in the Southwest, you can find it everywhere from ornamental gardens to the untouched National Parks. If I had known, I’d have had a yucca bath that day.

Wood Ashes as Cleaning Agent

Wood Ashes

In an emergency situation, you can wash your skin or pots and pans, etc with ashes from a campfire. It’s important to use clean ashes and not to leave them on your skin too long… ashes are caustic, as they contain lye, an ingredient used in making store-bought soaps.

Buffalo/Missouri Gourd, Mock Orange, Callabacilla

Small triangular leaves and a very spreading habit, this vine has small, orange shaped and sized gourds and a thick taproot that can be up to five feet long. The gourds can also be used as sponges. There is less lather in this plant than others.

Soapberry Trees

These grow in the Southeastern and MidAtlantic states, and are one of three varieties. They have small berries which lather when crushed in water.

Wild Lilac, Myrtle, Buck Brush

Grows in the Western states, covering the land with blue and white flowers in the Spring. The flowers can be used as soap, and are very fragrant, leaving the body perfumed.

Southern Buckeye

A Southeastern plant that is best for washing clothes and fabrics. Like the soapwort, it can stun fish when thrown in water, though this is illegal and should be reserved for survival situations.

Read more about soap plants here

Survival outline that includes a few more saponin-containing plants

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