Wild Washing

Our house, being a random and teetering pile of half-completed refurbishments and ancient farm, has drainage that can only be described as unpredictable. Like most houses in the rural areas of France, we have a septic tank rather than mains drainage. When we moved here, we had to replace the old septic tank to be in line with current regulations. At the same time we discovered that things like the sinks and the shower drained directly into the ditch on the lane, which was far from ideal.

Moving-in day

Most of this has now been diverted to the new septic tank, though this, too, eventually releases (clean) water into the ditch. And the washing machine still drains into a mysterious hole in the ground, flowing to who-knows-where. The need to use eco-friendly cleaning products is a given. The fact that everything we flush or rinse or drain ends up directly in the water courses surrounding us, and quite probably our well, makes the effects more immediate.

Shopping for ‘green’ cleaning products is a nightmare. Claims are made about eco-friendliness and efficacy, some of which are suspect to say the least. If you are lucky enough to live near one of the zero-waste shops springing up around the UK, it is possible to take your own containers to refill with washing-up liquid. And although it is possible to buy most things loose in France – even wine! – cleaning liquids and the like are yet to be widely available as such. Even the most eco-friendly products tend to come in plastic bottles, so there is the question of disposal. As is so often the case, the forest can supply a solution.

Wild plants, animals, and fungi have provided us with food for millennia. They have also been the source of many other useful chemicals, used in medicines and cleaning products. Indeed, modern medicines and household products still contain extracts of plants and fungi, or synthesised versions thereof. It is possible to create your own replacements for many of the things you would normally buy from the supermarket; washing liquids, moisturising creams, soap, as well as folk medicine for everything from headaches to coughs to nausea. In our quest to gradually become as self-sufficient as possible, we came across the following recipe and method for a home made washing liquid.


This liquid is easy to use, incredibly cheap to produce, and really does work on all but the most heavily soiled clothes. There are a couple of caveats. I wouldn’t recommend using it on your favourite crisp whites, or anything that needs a gentle clean. Also, ivy – and thus the resulting liquid here – can cause contact dermatitis in some people, so best to try a drop of the liquid on your skin before doing a whole week’s worth of washing.

Common ivy (Hedera helix) is a familiar sight to most. A climbing evergreen vine, it can be found clinging to walls, encircling tree trunks, even growing up cliffs. The leaves are a glossy green, growing alternately on the vine. They are five-lobed when young, more rounded when mature, with clearly visible lighter veins. The leaves contain saponins, a group of chemicals that act like soap when agitated. It is these saponins that are the active ingredient in the laundry liquid.

As with all cleaning products, do not ingest.

It is just the leaves used in the recipe, so harvest mindfully, leaving any flowers or berries – they are important sources of food for insects and birds respectively. It is not necessary to remove the vine from its home, just gently pick the leaves you need. For one batch (about five washes), pick 50 of the larger, more mature leaves. Rinse briefly to remove any debris and insect life. Shred them roughly with a pair of scissors into a saucepan. Add 1 litre of cold water. Put a lid on the pan, and bring to the boil on a high heat. Turn the heat down and simmer, fairly vigorously, for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for 24 hours.

Once cooled and infused, strain through a fine sieve into a bottle. It will keep in a cool dark place for a couple of weeks. Use 200ml of this liquid in place of your usual laundry detergent. As it has no odour, it’s best to dry clothes outside once washed for freshness.

It is possible to make a similar liquid from conkers, though I haven’t tried this yet. More experiments in foraged household products to come!

This article first appeared in a different form on Locavore Magazine’s website.