Rainforests, Soap, and Sinus Surgery

One of the fascinating features of the little island in the Caribbean is the extraordinary diversity of its geography.  The East End of the island is hilly and dry, covered in low scrub and bush like tan-tan and Ginger Thomas stands, and bears the forefront of the tradewinds that sweep in from the sea.  The center of the island flattens out a bit, but still features gentle curving hills that once sustained sprawling sugar cane plantations.  And going on to the West End, you find an remarkable feature — a genuine rainforest that climbs into the sky. There’s really only one main road that will take you through the rainforest, and it’s a trip best done slowly and carefully; there are sections of the road that wash out in interesting ways, and you’ll find yourself crossing running water more than once. But the varied colors and movement of the forest that surrounds you, the shifting light and fragrances of the plants and the earth, make it a trip well worth making.  It also inspired me to try to recreate at least some of the experience in a soap.

St. Croix is remaking itself as a destination island for people interested in highly skilled, deliciously authentic, and locally grown organic food.  There are several farms now that not only supply local restaurants and markets, but also offer apprenticeships, vacation stays, and camps teaching how to grow quality organic food in a tropical clime.  In honor of this resurrection, I decided I’d use only herbal colorants for the soap this time.



There are a number of online shops to obtain soapmaking resources.  I found one, soap-making-resource.com, that offered a sample pack of various spice and herbal colorants for use in cold-process soaps.  The bag I received was enormous and contained everything from activated charcoal to madder root to alkanet to dandelion.  After a bit of research on the type of greens I was after, I chose three:  Comfrey Leaf, Nettle Leaf, and French Green Clay.

Greens and blues can be tough colors to create in soap, even if you’re using the more ordinary pigments, micas, and liquid colorants.  As in any alchemy, colors can change, morph, or even disappear on you without even so much as a courtesy phone call.  Herbs double down the difficulty — so many have hideous reputations for turning bizarrely awful colors, smelling odd, or refusing to do anything at all.  So I knew going in that practically anything could happen, and there was an additional level of pressure involved — my mom was coming into town and I’d promised to show her how to make soap.

She was coming in on a mercy mission — to help take care of the Kid, who was having sinus surgery that week and more hands are better in that kind of situation.  I knew the day after the surgery the Kid would be off on a sleepy-happy little cloud of Vicodin, so that would be the best day to try the soap.  I started gathering and setting up the gear.  But what mold to use? 

The guys to the right are classic soap molds.  The dark blue is a loaf mold, and the lighter blue is a single-bar slab mold that I usually use for testing new colors and fragrances, or for overflow soap. I’m also going to start experimenting with it for swirling techniques that are difficult to do in loaf molds.

But there are other, more oddball options.

“Morning Sun.”

Yes, that is a Pringles can, and it creates a lovely round bar if everything goes right.  I’ve heard of some folks lining theirs and using it multiple times, but for me it’s a one-off.  This is primarily because it gives me a perfect excuse to eat the chips. “I need a new round mold!”  I’d used a Pringles can before and produced the “Morning Sun” soap.

Trying another round soap appealed to me, so I fished out a can I’d been saving (much to my mom’s amusement), and we got the show on the road.  Mom had chosen a combination of fragrances that she thought smelled like a bright, tropical forest: a coconut, lime and verbena fragrance oil with a dollop of lemongrass essential oil to add a citrus crispness.  The recipe was extremely simple: coconut oil and olive oil, which should produce a creamy and moisturizing soap with decent lathering and bubbles.

The mixing went fairly well; the comfrey leaf was put into the base batter, and then split into three.  The nettle leaf and green clay were mixed into the other two measuring cups, all stick-mixered  into a light to medium trace, and then the nettle and clay colors were poured from a height into the base batter at the 12 and 6 o’clock positions. One and a half circular sweeps of a spatula swirled the mix, and then it was poured into the Pringles can. We wrapped it up in some towels.  And then we waited, tended the Kid, made herb tea, pitted cherries, and drank white wine.


Mom had to leave before I could unpeel the can and take a look at what we’d made.  It had produced a tiny volcano at the top (this is the second time I’ve seen that phenomenon in a Pringles can), but otherwise seemed hale and hearty.  Today I opened and cut it.  It is a firm, sturdy little beast — still a little soft, but that’s to be expected — and it cut like a dream with the Unbelievably Useful Husband’s handcrafted device. I was delighted and even dumbfounded by the herbal colors, and couldn’t help but add a leaf soap stamp and paint on a little mica.  To me, it does reflect the rainforest; the colors shift like the light in the canopy leaves, and the fragrance is gentle, earthy, fresh and relaxing. And while it might darken, I’m going to be working more with herbal and spice colorants now.  Turmeric? Paprika? Sandalwood? Dandelion? Have at you!

Days Go By

One of the truisms burned into my head over the years is that “dogs, cats, kids and gardens don’t care if you’re tired.”  The work has to be done anyway, anyhow, however you feel and whatever else you feel like doing (such as watching multiple episodes of “No Reservations” while in your jammies).  Everybody has to be fed, watered, often entertained and usually cleaned up after.  (It’s a good day if someone in the house hasn’t had a barfing fit. With three cats and two large dogs, you know it’s just a matter of time. “Time” meaning “minutes.”)

With that recognized, it’s also good to be aware that your agenda isn’t the only one that’s active.  For example, below is a shot from a second-floor window.  That’s a bougainvillea asking to come in.

Unbelievably Useful Husband fears it has malevolent intentions.

Yes, it has to be trimmed, but there’s a lot to be said for a bush so exuberant that it blasts itself up two stories in two months without any of the other residents of the household noticing it.  This is a ninja bougainvillea.  “This is not the bougainvillea you’re looking for.” The CIA should hire this plant and teach it to pick locks.  It’s about three inches away from being able to peel open the window as it is.  When you’ve got a landscaping plant suddenly waving at you cheerfully at the level of your second-floor office window, you get the idea that maybe it’s not all about you, what you want, or even what you do.

I’m ruminating about this because I “took the day off” yesterday. The world didn’t end, the animals aren’t all dead (well, the feedings did still occur) and there’s now a bougainvillea leaning in the window who wants to edit my posts.  There’s also a soap that had to wait one extra day before I could unmold it, because it was a lot softer than I anticipated.  I’d done a session on Friday, trying a new technique that scared the living daylights out of me. It demanded that I split the basic soap batter up into five separate containers for separate colors, and then layer them into a mold.  The inspiration for the design came from a sunset photographed from the little island in the Caribbean.

Layers of color, with the stars coming out.

The preparation for this moonshot was a little demanding.

The giant bag of coconut oil is sitting outside in the sun, warming up.

Soapmaking (like dogs, cats, kids and gardens) doesn’t care if you want to take a break to put your feet up, have a cigarette, talk to your mom on the phone or catch the latest Facebook update.  Saponification happens with a terrifying inevitability.  First the lye-infused oil batter is thin and liquid; then it gets glossy, and then it “traces” more and more heavily, and not too long after that you’ve got soap on a stick.  Once you’re on that train it’s not gonna stop. It’s alchemy at its most intense.

Accordingly, it is incumbent upon you to have your mise in order.  You’re going to be working really fast.

The colorant and mold array.


Oils, molds, colorants, containers, fragrance — everything has to be in reach and the step-by-step process has to be followed precisely without fail.



I don’t have any photos of the actual making of the soap on Friday, because it really was that high-speed and that terrifying and I don’t have minions to take the pictures. (Where are my minions? Wasn’t I promised minions? Did the Kardashians take them all?)  By the time I reached the fifth layer, the soap was setting up so hard I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to pull it off.   But somehow it all worked, and I put the mold to bed.

The next day I decided I was wiped out and wasn’t going to do anything I didn’t absolutely have to.  So the soap contemplated itself, the garden managed its own affairs, the bougainvillea apparently grew another three feet and the animals entertained themselves, with some sub rosa assistance from Unbelievably Useful Husband.  And when I rejoined the ranks of the responsible today, I unmolded the soap.

“St. Croix Sunset, Emerging Stars”

The fragrance is a rich, deep and fruit-laden indulgence, with a base of patchouli and just a hint of herbal grassiness to cut the sweetness. This is going to be a very creamy, sensual soap when it’s done curing.  The cure will probably take a little longer than others, because I included more water in the recipe to slow down the saponification at the front end. The water must evaporate out to make the soap harder. And the evaporation cannot really be speeded up.  It’s all time and patience, without me having to “do” anything at all.  A lot like my Saturday.