Practical ecological knowledge for the temperate reader.


Found in the following species; (Local species are in bold)

  • Acer Sp. - Maples; [8][Wiki]
  • Achillea millefolium - Yarrow (Tillyaev et al., 1973; Wagner, 1941) [Chandler et al.]
  • Asparagus officinalis - Asparagus []
  • Bellis perennis - English Daisy []
  • Herniaria glabra and H. hirsuta (Caryophyllaceae)(Europe, South America (Andes), central and west Asia and Africa) [Madland,2013]
  • Hippocastanaceae - Horse Chestnut Family [8][Wiki]
    • Aesculus hippocastanum - Horse Chestnut; Triterpene saponins (3-5%): The triterpene saponine mixture known as aescin (also escin)[PDR]
  • Agrostemma githago - Corn cockle []
  • Drymaria arenaroides - Alfombrilla []
  • Gutierrezia sarothrae - Broomweed []
  • Helleborus niger - Christmas Rose []
  • Kalopanax pictus - Stem bark [Madland,2013]
  • Lonicera japonica [Madland,2013]
  • Maesa lanceolata - Haemolytic saponins [Madland,2013]
  • Medicago Sp. - the leaves of "all 83 species of Medicago". [Haagen-Smit,1949]
  • M. sativa - Alfalfa - positive results in the leaves of 1213 variants of this species.[Haagen-Smit,1949]
  • Panax ginseng [TNS]
  • Phytolacca (Phytolaccaceae) genus [Madland,2013]
  • Sapindus - Soapberry/Soapnet [8][Wiki]

(Above) Image of traditional south american people using fish poison.[Smithsonian]

  • Saponaria - Soapwort; Root.[8][Wiki]
  • Serjania paucidentata - Ribbed liana [from Guyana] - stem used for fish toxin.[Andel,2000]
  • Symphoricarpos albus - Common Snowberry
  • Smilax aristolochiaefolia Sarsaparilla; Roots [Haagen-Smit,1949]
  • S. Regelii - Sarsaparilla; Roots [Haagen-Smit,1949]
  • Viola odorata - Sweet violet [PDR]
  • Yucca - "A considerable amount of saponins is obtained from the pulp after fiber removal." [Krochmal et al.]
  • Also isolated from some marine organisms.[1][5][Wiki]


Alfalfa; 8% " in alfalfa seedlings sold commercially as salad sprouts."(Price et al. 1987)[Small et al.] Canadian cultivar ssp. sativa leaf average was about 0.5-1% hemolytic saponin content, the wild European species had an average content of 0.5-1.5%.[Small et al.] ssp. sativa; The plant contains 5000-20000 ppm. The seed contains 3000ppm, The sprouted seedling 1100-80000ppm.[DukePhyto] Alfalfa saponin concentrations "are low in spring and fall and high in midsummer." []

Ginseng; Panax ginseng cultivated in China,had a total saponin content of; root (2%), lateral root (7%), rhizome(6%), and fresh leaf (5.5%) on average.[TNS]

Soybean; The saponin content in soybean is 6.500 g kg-1, which is the highest among legumes (Sagratini et al., 2009). [Chaturvedi,2012]

Stability & Preperatory Methods

The saponin content and its antioxidant activity are likely to diminish during harsh processing conditions. The processing conditions especially boiling reduced the saponin significantly. Microwave treatment, soaking or sprouting are better techniques to improve the saponin content. [Chaturvedi,2012]

"The saponins [of Ginseng] are prone to hydrolysis under heat and acid conditions." Drying procedures during the processing of white ginseng do not alter the ratio of its panaxadiol and panaxatriol compounds. The malonyl-ginsenosides, obtained in substantially greater concentrations in the red form, are particularly unstable during its preparation of steaming heating in acidic conditions and subsequent drying. [TNS]

Classifications & Types

Traditionally classified as either triterpenoid and steroid glycosides, or triterpenoid, spirostanol, and furostanol saponins. [Vicken et al.]

Divided "into three major classes according to the structure of genin: Triterpene glycosides, steroid glycosides and steroid alkaloid glycosides." [Madland,2013]

"11 main classes of saponins were distinguished" 6 classes "are further divided into 16 subclasses, because their carbon skeletons are subjected to fragmentation, homologation, and degradation reactions." [Vicken et al.]


"Molecules containing 30 carbon atoms built along the same principles as the terpenes are found among the saponins". [Haagen-Smit,1949]

"They lower the surface tension of aqueous solutions and therefore give stable foams when in contact with water." They have a bitter taste. "These attributes are not common to all known saponins", but "are sometimes used to characterize this class of compounds." [Madland,2013] "...if they have a triterpenoid aglycone they may instead have a licorice taste as glucuronic acid replaces sugar in triterpenoids." []


"Many drugs...owe their pharmacological and detergent action to the presence of these compounds." [Haagen-Smit,1949] Toxic to cold-blooded animals. [Madland,2013] Fungicidal and piscicidal. Also "reported to have antimicrobial, [18] cancer preventing [19] and antiviral activities. [20]." [Madland,2013] Most saponins are also diuretic [] "Saponins are used as expectorants, diuretics, hypotensives and hypocholesterolemics. Saponins from Aralia mandschurica, Echinopanax elatus, Eleutherococcus spp., and Panax spp. have stimulating effects." [Eisenman MPCA]

Antioxidant Activity

Some "pasture weeds contain substantial quantities" of saponins dangerous to animals. "Humans generally do not suffer severe poisoning from saponins." ..." cholesterin inactivates them so that only our mucus membranes are affected." Alfalfa saponins may have human health implications as they reduce serum cholesterol by "preventing its reabsorption after it has been excreted in the bile." [] "a dermal irritant/sensitizer." [HPIP Shih]


Saponins are known to "cause haemolysis (lysis of erythrocytes with the release of hemoglobin)[Madland,2013], also explained as "certain saponins swell and rupture erythrocytes". Such saponins are 'deleterious to many organisms, although occasionally they have proven beneficial." [Small et al.] The resistance of red blood cells against saponin is different in the different species of animal [Furuhata,1918]

Health Benefits

Other Uses

Traditionally utilized from many plants around the world as a fish poison.[PersonalNote]

Case Examples

Alfalfa - Medicago sativa; Hemolytic Saponins

Pharmacology; fungitoxic, antimicrobial, insecticidal, and piscicidal[kills fish]. They are also allelopathic[inhibits other plants] (Mishustin and Naumova 1955; Oleszek and Jurzysta 1987). [Small et al.]

Toxicology; "Anti-nutritional for poultry and monogastric mammals but not ruminants". To mammals; IV=highly toxic; oral= very much lower "due to failure to cross the gut and enter the bloodstream."There is "no evidence to suggest that consumption by humans is harmful."(Price et al. 1987)[Small et al.]


  1. [Andel,2000] THE DIVERSE USES OF FISH-POISON PLANTS IN NORTHWEST GUYANA, TINDE VAN ANDEL, Economic Botany 54(4) pp. 500-512. 2000
  2. [Chandler et al.] Ethnobotany and Phytochemistry of Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, Compositae I, R. F. CHANDLER,S. N. HOOPER, AND M. J. HARVEY, Economic Botany, 36(2), 1982, pp. 203-223
  3. [Chaturvedi,2012] Effect of processing conditions on saponin content and antioxidant activity of Indian varieties of soybean (Glycine max Linn.), Shivani Chaturvedi, R. Hemamalini and Sunil K. Khare, Annals of Phytomedicine 1(1): 62-68, 2012
  4. [], Updated 05/22/2014 08:06:31, Accessed July 12, 2015
  5. [DukePhyto] Dr. Duke's Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases. [Online Database] 11 July 2015.
  6. [Furuhata, 1918] A Study of Saponin Hemolysis, Tanemoto Furuhata, The Journal of Immunology September 1, 1918 vol. 3 no. 5 423-434,
  7. [Haagen-Smit,1949] Essential Oils -- A Brief Survey of their Chemistry and Production in the United States, Economic Botany, January–March 1949, Volume 3, Issue 1, pp 71-83
  8. [Krochmal et al.] Useful Native Plants in the American Southwestern Deserts, A. KROCHMAL, S. PAUR AND P. DUISBERG, Economic Botany, January–March 1954, Volume 8, Issue 1, pp 3-20
  9. [Madland,2013]Madland, Eva. "Extraction, isolation and structure elucidation of saponins from Herniaria incana." (2013).
  10. [Small et al.] The Evolution of Hemolytic Saponin Content in Wild and Cultivated Alfalfa (Medicago sativa, Fabaceae), ERNEST SMALL, MARIAN JURZYSTA, AND CONSTANCE NOZZOLILLO, Economic Botany, 44(2), 1990, pp. 226-235
  11. [Smithsonian]The Canela (Eastern Timbira), I: An Ethnographic Introduction, William H. Crocker, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990., Accessed July 12, 2015
  12. [Vicken et al.] Saponins, classification and occurrence in the plant kingdom., Vincken JP, Heng L, de Groot A, Gruppen H., Phytochemistry. 2007 Feb;68(3):275-97. Epub 2006 Dec 4. Review.
  13. [Wiki], Accessed July 11, 2015
  14. [Wiki-2] Hemolysis -, Accessed July 12, 2015

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