Quillaja saponaria, or the Chilean soapbark tree, has long been used in its native region to treat various chest and skin ailments. It is believed to be particularly effective as an expectorant, helping the body to remove phlegm by increasing the production of fluid mucous. Quillaja saponaria is also used to treat dandruff and skin ulcers as it is a gentle cleanser. Recent research indicates that this tree may be effective at reducing and even preventing rotavirus infection in children.
This plant has been used as an effective expectorate because it contains saponins. These chemical compounds can be toxic, but humans are generally not severely affected because their bodies contain neutralizing cholesterin. What saponins do affect in humans are the mucous membranes, facilitating the body’s ability to expectorate phlegm. As a result, quillaja saponaria is used in cough syrups and sneezing powders, and is believed to be an effective remedy for certain types of chest problems.
External uses of quillaja saponaria include remedies for dandruff, skin ulcers, and other cuticle problems. Extract from this plant is associated with anti-inflammatory properties. It is also believed to soothe itchy skin and scalp irritation.
Recent research indicates that quillaja saponaria extract can prevent rotavirus infection in children and lessen its symptoms. Rotavirus causes severe diarrhea in children, and can lead to dehydration and death. Soapbark tree extract was found to block or reduce infection by interrupting interaction between the virus and other cells. The saponin in the extract was found to significantly reduce the rate of diarrhea, thus preventing death from dehydration. Soapbark tree extract can easily be added to water or milk, and is also often used to an additive in soft drinks to produce bubbly foam.
In addition to its established medicinal uses, the inner bark is frequently used as a substitute for soap. Due to its gentleness, it can be used to clean everything from clothing to skin. To be used this way, the bark, once removed, is pounded into a powder. The saponins it contains have a natural foaming quality useful to manufacturers of detergents, soft drinks, and even fire extinguishers. It is also an effective pesticide.
Although saponins are not well absorbed by the human body and thus rarely cause severe reactions, quillaja saponaria should not be consumed in large quantities. Although usually safe in food amounts, some toxic effects in humans, such as liver damage, gastrointestinal problems, and respiratory failure, have been reported. Anyone considering taking quillaja saponaria should consult with a medical professional.
The soapbark tree is an evergreen native to the Andean mountains. It is particularly populous in Chile. It grows to a height of approximately 59 feet (18 meters) and typically flowers from April to May.