Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Beautiful (and Potent!) Castor Beans

Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Susan reporting:

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.

We think we'd rather admire it from afar...


Karin B. Miller said...

Love getting all this info about Colonial Williamsburg. My sister attended William & Mary and we visited several times before, during and after her studies there. Makes me want to visit soon! Thanks!

Aislinn said...

Castor oil was also used to induce labor if your baby was taking its time coming into the world. My mother was born in 1920 and she still remembers doctors dispensing that advice.

Miss Kirsten said...

Holistic/traditional medicine still considers castor oil as a way to induce labor. No sane doctor would recommend it, tho, since the mother would become so dehydrated from the diarreha. Can you imagine being in labor AND have severe diarreha?

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog that brought back memories. My grand-dad claimed his mother dosed all her children with castor oil each April as a spring tonic. He said she'd chase them around with the bottle and spoon until they took it. That must have been about 1920 or so.

nightsmusic said...

After having been subjected to more than one colonoscopy, I'll pass on anything that even remotely resembles a purge. :o)

My father who was born at the turn of the century always used to tell my mother though, it worked for him when he was a boy, it should work for me too when I was 'out of sorts.'


Thankfully, she smiled and patted him and left the bottle in the cupboard.

And I'm not going to mention that since sex can induce or enhance labor, I'd much rather do that than castor oil,'s sex! ;o)

Deb said...

When my pregnant cousin's baby was overdue, her mother persuaded her to drink a 50-50 mixture of orange juice and castor oil. Labor started the next day. This was only 32 years ago.

Incidently, I understand that since the riacin attack on the Tokyo subway (which left a number of people dead) in the 1990s, ordering of large quantities of castor plants/seeds/beans is monitored.

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