11 September 2008

Castor Oil Anyone?

This is the second year of growing the tropical Castor Oil Plant (ricinus communis) during the summer. In the spring of last year, the landscape architect friends gave me a seedling of the plant. There were actually two plants in the pot, and both were planted in a sunny untended corner of the garden. This plant was full of surprises. After planting outdoors, this "jack and the beanstalk" plant reached about 8-feet (2.4 m) within two months. So... I understand this is a weed in the southwest United States, but around here they are quite unique.

Little leaves on this plant started out as a maroon color and turned green as they got larger. Each of the leaves that grew out was bigger than the previous, eventually resembling giant fans. If the plant was given some better growing conditions, these 14-inch wide leaves (40 cm) may have super-sized into umbrellas!

Being tired of reaching toward the sky, one day the leaves stopped and a surprising flower stalk emerged. The flowers were more of a cluster of small creamy petals along a vertical spike that looked like cauliflower from afar. No fragrance associated with them, but the ants loved them.

Then another surprise popped out after the flowers. A cluster of spiked light orange marble-sized balls resembling something really painful appeared (although they were not sharp). These seed pods sat right above the flowers and on the same stalk. The pods changed colors to an almost fluorescent pink as days went on.

Autumn dried out the seed pods. After splitting open, three speckled castor beans in each pod were discovered and saved for this year. These were started indoors this spring and after low germination rates and some damping off, two plants survived to be planted outdoors and grew this summer.

The entire plant is poisonous, but especially the beams. But, the oil had many uses for medicine (and even engine oil.) Here's a little web site excerpt of the medicinal history of Castor Oil that touches on what we may know castor oil for:
Castor oil was used medicinally in the United States since the days of the pioneers. As Americans moved west after the Civil War, settlers were very attracted to Indian medicines and popular "cure-all" remedies. The stronger smelling and the more vile tasting the concoction, the better, and some medical historians have described the latter part of the 1800's as the "age of heroic cures." Castor oil was one of the old-fashioned remedies for everything from constipation to heartburn. It is indeed a very effective cathartic or purgative (laxative) and is still used to this day; however, there are milder, less drastic methods of inducing regularity. Castor oil is also used as personal lubricant: It is sometimes applied externally as a soothing emollient for dry skin, dermatitis, other skin diseases, sunburn, open sores, and it is the primary ingredient of several brand name medications. Several additional little-known uses for castor oil include hair tonics, ointments, cosmetics, and contraception creams and jellies. One remarkable old remedy mentions administering castor oil to induce labor during pregnancy.
So, if the plant and beans were full of poison, how did people drink the oil? Maybe that's a stupid question for a chemist, but gardeners want to know.

For The Record:
  • Heavy clay soil
  • Full sun
  • No fertilizer

Garden Calendar:
  • Blooming: silver salvia, nicotiana, cosmos, canna, castor, basil
  • Harvested: 5 peppers