Castor Bean Plant: Pretty Plant with the Potent Poisons
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Castor Bean Plant: Pretty Plant with the Potent Poisons

The Castor Bean Oil plant has many uses such as medicinal/pharmaceuticals, plastics additives, for the production of fiber optics and bulletproof glass, more uses. The plant is highly toxic, the source of the bio/chemical agent "ricin" and "RCA" yet it can still be found as an ornamental plant in private gardens and public city parks.

Toxic and Non-Native Invasive Plants

The Castor Bean plant is a shrub formerly native to tropical Ethiopian region, Africa, Mediterranean Basin and India. Castor Bean plants can be found today as a naturalized and/or ornamental plant here in the western hemisphere, and grown commercially as a cash crop in temperate regions in the U.S. such as in southern California. It is drought resistant and easy to grow. Like some other non-native plants to North America such as the Giant Hogweed, the Castor Bean Plant is also a very toxic and poisonous.

Castor Oil Bio-diesel Fuels?

Castor bean plants might be useful as bio-diesel fuel

Grown commercially mainly for its namesake oil which contains only trace amounts of the natural toxin ricin, it is being considered for use in creating diesel bio-fuels. Castor bean oil is unique in that it does not require heat to manufacture into bio-diesel so it takes less energy to produce the product, and it is soluble in alcohol where all other 'bio-fuels' are not. All of this would contribute to instituting this into a bio-fuel crop and that helps with the reduction of greenhouse gases.

(image source via Flickr)

Owing to its drought resistance and ease to grow, this could become the next major cash crop for developing nations where other crops like corn or soy do not fare so well. One problem currently is the creation of machinery to harvest this unusual plant, and the fluctuations of prices of the Castor oil commodity currently. A stabilized market and national tax subsidies would be required assurances to make it a viable long-tern cash crop for some nations that cannot suffer even a single 'bad year' for the costs or returned profits.

Castor bean oil products includes some 700 other derivative uses ranging from cosmetics, medicinal uses, lubricants, and even replacing petroleum products in manufactured plastics. More uses include the manufacture of bulletproof glass, human bone-graft prostheses and the making of fiber optics. Like hemp, the legal uses of castor bean products far outnumber the potential dangerous uses and health risks.

The castor plant is also quite toxic, possessing alkaloids, glycosides, various resins and volatile oils. One toxic benefit of the plant (if there can said to be one) is that moles underground will taste or nibble upon the roots and die from the toxins they contain. Having a castor plant in a larger ornamental garden setting may effectively rid the entire area of moles, voles, mice and burrowing rodents such as squirrels which would dig-up and consume the tubers and bulbs of many flowering plants.

Toxic to the Touch Castor Bean Plant

Touching the plant with your bare unprotected skin can be dangerous. Getting the bitter-tasting sap into your eyes or mouth from secondary contact can be downright deadly. Even mowed-down and desiccated castor plants are toxic and should not be handled without gloves. Some cities and states are trying to ban the ornamental use of castor bean plants in their regions. If the plant oils and resins are this toxic, even the slash & burning of the plants would make the smoke from their incineration a toxic irritant if you should happen to get it onto yourself. Accidentally walking through the smoke would cause the smoky resins and toxic oils to get into your eyes, mouth and lungs with unfortunate and painful results.

If all the symptoms of accidental poisoning as described are not enough, the castor plant also produces the protein “ricin,” a highly toxic ingredient that can be used as both a chemical and biological weapon. Another toxin that is produced from castor bean plants is “RCA” (Ricinus communis agglutinin,) a potent blood coagulant.

The plant is therefore on the watch-list of items that could be used to create a terrorist weapon or poison intended to harm the mass populace. The relative ease by which seeds can be procured is a real concern for federal authorities in charge of homeland security. Of concern too is that refined ricin is ‘heat stable’ meaning that it can be used as part of the payload of an explosive device and still be deadly. It is not rendered inert by heat and thus can be used along with shrapnel in an explosive device. If an infected patient survives the dehydration, coma and other symptoms, within several days they stand a good chance of recovery. There is currently no vaccine or treatment for ricin poisoning other than fluid replacement although research is looking for such an inoculation vaccine.

Castor Bean Plant as an Ornamental

castor bean plant as an ornamental

(image source via Flickr)

Castor Bean Pods

castor bean pods, with the flowers having already dropped-off

(image source via Flickr)

castor bean seed pods

(image source via Flickr)

The seeds in its native homeland are sometimes ingested by grazing livestock, causing the animal to die from even small quantities.

The castor bean shrub grows as an annual here in Canada too, sometimes even used as an interior houseplant. The plant should not be permitted to grow where children frequent (public city parks, community playgrounds, anywhere children would have access.)

A cited source (Cooper and Johnson 1984, Griffiths et al. 1987) states that just 2 to 4 seeds ingested can cause death in a human child. Other sources indicate that even one castor bean if eaten, it can be fatal to a child. Anything that toxic should not be permitted to go to seed, if not entirely prohibited from public or personal cultivation.

Where the plant is grown as an ornamental, rigorous monitoring must be undertaken to excise the unripe seed-pod stalk before the seeds reach maturity. Plant toxicity notwithstanding, it is the seeds that are the most likely vector of accidental poisoning and deaths. It is entirely possible that a castor seed if swallowed whole will pass through the intestines without releasing its ricin payload, but nobody should assume that risky proposition. Any unskilled, incidental contact with this plant or ingestion of any part thereof should be considered to be of the utmost risk and medical help should be sought.

When the seed pods of the castor plant are ripe, they burst open violently. This seeds are expelled many feet or even yards away from the mother plant. This is often where children or other animals may find and ingest the seeds, even if the plant is behind a fence or restriction gate. If castor plants are used as ornamental (indoors or outdoors,) they should not be permitted to go to seed.

As it is, someday in the near future we may yet see widespread legislation to make castor bean plants illegal to own privately.

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Comments (2)

Great work!

Wow, didn't know any of this.