Beauty and the Beast
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.
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?
*felo-de-see: a person who commits an act that results in his or her own death