When we first came across these tall (over six feet), gaudy plants with their fantastic pods in one of the gardens in Colonial Williamsburg, we'd no idea what they were – though they did remind us of something contrived by Dr. Seuss. If we'd been an 18th c. housewife, however, we would have recognized them as once, and would likely have had one growing somewhere in our kitchen garden – much to the distress and dread of our children.
This is a castor bean plant, and the seeds that grow within the prickly pink capsules are the source of castor oil. While castor oil has a long history – ancient Egyptians burned it in their lamps – now the oil is primarily used as a lubricant and in hydraulic fluids, as well as in pharmaceutical applications and in manufactured goods ranging from soap to dyes.
The castor bean can be a dangerous plant as well. The seeds, stems, and leaves contain high levels of rincin, which is poisonous to humans and animals. In the strange way of nature, the oil derived from pressing the hulled seeds is not toxic, but considerable care must be taken while harvesting.
In the historical past that prized a good purge, castor oil was known for its ability to produce a swift result that one source describes as "exceptionally violent diarrhea." We agree that that sounds pretty hideous, but we suppose it was the historical version of a "cleanse" today.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.