Friday, April 13, 2012

Herb of the Week - Castor Bean

The bold look is back in garden design, so not surprisingly, castor beans have reappeared as backdrops for gardeners wanting to make a prominent statement in their plantings. Everything about castor bean is bold and a bit audacious, so gardeners with a bit of maverick in them seem to be drawn to this big plant. It was a very popular plant in 1890s gardening and cam be a great focal point in your garden.  Because the bean make a useful oil, one can loosely consider them and herb, so this week’s

Herb of the Week is Castor (Ricinus communis).

Castor bean (Ricinus communis) is a member of the spurge family and is native to tropical Africa where it grows as a tree to 40 feet tall. When grown as an annual it is usually a more modest 10 feet tall, which I what it will be when grown in Illinois where I live. Its leaves are star shaped with five to nine lobes and can be as large as a garbage can lid. The selections grown as ornamentals usually have a maroon tinge to the foliage.

The flowers of castor bean are borne near the top of the plant in panicles. But lacking petals they are not especially noteworthy. As the seed mature, the three-celled, spiny capsules turn bright red on foot long panicles and make an interesting distraction to the bold foliage.

It is from the extracts of this seed that castor bean gains its real significance. The oil is used commercially for everything from lubrication to cosmetics and is one of the most important industrial crop oils.

Children of my parent’s generation, probably know castor oil as a not-so-gentle laxative. The purgative powers of castor bean have long been known. The ancient Egyptians believed that food was the source of disease, so they drank beer laced with castor bean three times a month for a hearty flush of the digestive track.

As a teen-ager my encounter with castor bean expanded when I tried Castrol motor oil in hopes it would make my old Ford run like a race car. It didn’t help. The oil is used commercially in cosmetics, medicine and waterproofing treatments.

But castor bean seeds have one other characteristic that merits attention - they are poisonous. The poison is ricin, a proteinaceous molecule similar in structure and mode of action to the bacterial toxin found in anthrax. It’s said to be 1,000 times more toxic than cobra venom.

Castor bean is sometimes called mole plant from the practice of placing castor bean seeds in mole runs where the rodents will hopefully eat the seeds and perish. When you spot a castor bean growing in the middle of someone’s lawn, you can bet that the moles missed one.

Because of poor absorption of the phytotoxin from seed, fatalities from accidentally ingested seeds are uncommon. In fact, I can find no direct reports of fatalities from the seeds unless some nefarious plot was at work. But prudence dictates that castor bean plants should not be planted if small children are around.
Castor oil has been 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." Traveling medicine men peddled their elixirs throughout towns of the west, and often their products contained up to 40 percent (80 proof) alcohol. 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.
One of the reasons castor plants have become so successful is their extremely viable seed that germinates readily in a variety of soils. In fact, desperate vegetable gardeners have been known to place the poisonous seeds in the burrows of gophers and moles, thus propagating and dispersing the plant. Because of its ability to grow wild and reseed itself, castor plants are recognized by botanists as naturalized weeds throughout the southwestern United States.
Castor beans, despite their colorful history, are still good garden plants. They are best used at the back of the flower border where they form a fast growing, bold screen. Seeds should be planted where the plant is to stand in mid spring after the last chance of frost is past. They do best in full sun in any good garden soil. They are intolerant of wet locations.
Lavender Water Voile
The word voile in French means veil and is used to describe something that is very light and delicate.  When used to describe fragrance a voile is gentle and soft, just a whisper of fragrance on your skin.  You can also use a different favorite floral scent in this recipe, such as jasmine or rose.

¼ cup filtered or distilled water
12 drops castor oil
6 to 8 drops lavender essential oil

Mix together all ingredients and stir well.  Pour into a clean container with a tight-fitting lid.
Directions for use: Splash on after bath or shower.

Peppermint Lip Balm
3 tsp. jojoba Oil
1 tsp. castor oil
1 tsp. full-scented Cocoa butter
1 tsp. beeswax
10 drops peppermint essential oil
  1. Melt the cocoa butter together with beeswax.
  2. Add the jojoba and castor oil. 
  3. Stir and allow to cool slightly before adding the essential oils and blend thoroughly. 
  4. Pour into lip balm container.

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