Beauty and the Beast

Wild Castor Bean

Wild Castor Bean

Vibrant gaiety beckons me

Leaves so pretty, draw near and see

Gleaming sword with edges fine

Where life and death intertwine

Seeds of promise in spiny case

Healing oil or deadly embrace

So admire but let my beauty be

Else, you become a felo-de-se*

The castor bean is an amazing plant. Common along roadsides yet prized by gardeners, the quick growing annual sports lobed palmate leaves varying in coloration. Flowers cluster on a single stem. The creamy white flowers on the lower stem portion are male. They unfold to reveal a cluster of stamens. Above are spiny capsules with bright red starry stigmas perched on each apex. It is inside these ovaries that the seeds develop. When ripe the pods pop open sending the seed flying through the air.

Castor Bean Blossoms and Seed Capsules

Castor Bean Blossoms and Seed Capsules

I can remember my mother warning me about the castor bean plants that grew wild along our country road, “Look but don’t touch!” Mom was right. It is perhaps the most poisonous plant on earth. All parts of the plant are toxic, but the seeds contain the highest concentration of ricin, a toxin that inhibits protein synthesis. A few seeds are enough to kill an adult. It must have been that particular quality that drew Homeland Security to the yard of a Utah gardener. (If you follow the link, be sure to view the video. It’s hilarious.)

Looking back, I also remember hearing of vile tasting castor oil given to school friends as a purgative for tummy aches. As a child, I couldn’t help but wonder how something “good for you” could come from a poisonous plant. Yet, the oil from castor beans has hundreds of uses in industry and personal care. It even finds its way into lipstick, personal lubricants, and shampoo. The leftover meal from oil extraction feeds swine. Most exciting is ricin’s use in chemotherapy where it has the ability to target tumors while leaving healthy tissue untouched. So, there you have it, beauty and the beast. Isn’t nature wonderful?

Young Castor Bean Plant

Young Castor Bean Plant

*felo-de-see: a person who commits an act that results in his or her own death

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3 thoughts on “Beauty and the Beast

  1. Thank you for all of your useful information. I showed this to the children and we will be careful. Your photography is beautiful!!

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