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Hawaiian Native Plant Propagation Database

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Sapindus saponaria
Alternative Botanical Names
Sapindus thurstonii
Common Names
Hawaiian Soapberry
Potential or Traditional Uses
Lei (Flower or Seed)
Photo of Sapindus saponaria
Sapindus saponaria is a tall deciduous tree, growing up to 80 feet in height. It has pale brown bark that falls off in large patches on mature trees. The leaves are made up of 3 to 6 pairs of leaflets. The upper surface of the leaves is shiny green and the lower surface is fuzzy.

The flowers are borne in 4 to 8 inch long loose clusters at the ends of the branches. The flowers are unisexual, but both male and female flowers are produced on the same plant. (Wagner 1990)

Habitat and Geographic Range
Sapindus saponaria is indigenous to Hawai'i and is also native to Mexico, South America, New Caledonia, and Africa. In Hawai'i, Sapindus saponaria grows in moist forests on Hualalai, Mauna Loa, and Kilauea on the island of Hawai'i. It occurs naturally at elevations raning from 2,900 to 4,500 feet. (Wagner 1990)
Propagation by Seeds
The fleshy fruit of Sapindus saponaria is round and 3/4 inch long. The fruits generally ripen in the fall and winter and are brown to black when mature. Each fruit contains 1, occasionally 2 or 3, dark reddish brown to black seeds. The seeds are about 3/8 inch long. In one test, the Hawaiian population of Sapindus saponaria was found to be self-compatible.

The seeds of Sapindus saponaria should be removed from the fruit flesh. Germination is enhanced by scarification (penetration of the seed coat) using a sandpaper, a file or nail clippers, or cracking the seeds with a hammer being careful not to damage the end of the seed where it will sprout. A 24 hour hot water soak may also increase germination.

Culliney and Koebele recommend the following procedure for treating seeds of Sapindus saponaria. Scarify the seeds with a clippers or a knife. Following scarification, the seeds can either be kept in clean, moist verimulite for 1 or 2 weeks, or be soaked in a shallow pan of water until the dark outer seed coat is soft. If the seeds are soaked, the water should be changed daily.

Once the outer coat has softened, it can be removed by hand or with a small knife and then the thin papery brown inner coat should be carefully peeled off. This procedure leaves the cream colored embryo exposed. Handle the embryo carefully so that the embryonic root is not damaged. The embryo should be planted immediately in sterile potting soil, burying it 3/8 to 3/4 inch deep. With this method, Culliney and Koebele found that germination takes place in about a week and the germination rate is almost 100%. (Bornhorst 1996; Culliney 1999; Lilleeng-Rosenberger 1998; Wagner 1990)

Propagation by Cuttings
No information located to date.
Propagation by Division
Not applicable.
Propagation by Air Layers
No information located to date.
Propagation by Grafting
No information located to date.
Propagation by Tissue Culture
No information located to date.
Bornhorst, Heidi L. 1996. Growing native Hawaiian plants: a how-to guide for the gardener. Honolulu: The Bess Press. p. 55-56.

Culliney, John L., and Bruce P. Koebele. 1999. A native Hawaiian garden: how to grow and care for island plants. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. p. 53-55.

Lilleeng-Rosenberger, Kerin. 1998. Propagation techniques for native Hawaiian plants. Newsletter of the Hawaiian Botanical Society 37 (2):33-35.

Wagner, Warren L., Darrel R. Herbst, and S. H. Sohmer. 1990. Manual of the flowering plants of Hawai'i. 2 vols, Bishop Museum Special Publication 83. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press and Bishop Museum Press. p. 1229.

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The image in this record is used with permission from Dr. Gerald Carr's Web site "Hawaiian Native Plants" at

Last updated:
18 September 2001

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