Why Castor Beans?
May 22, 2013 7:50 PM   Subscribe

Someone in a neighborhood near mine is growing Castor Bean plants in their front yard. I had always thought of Castor Beans as a waste plant that grew up, unwanted, in disturbed areas. Owing to its toxic nature I thought it a strange choice for a carefully planted yard. Are castor beans more common in landscaping than I thought?

I pass this house often on my walks and I wondered why anyone would purposely grow castor beans in their yard. I came home and Googled Castor Beans. I discovered that there are many medicinal uses and Castor Beans are even used in some places to raise silkworms. So now I know that there may be any number of reasons someone would choose to grow this plant, but here is what made me think it seems odd. First, the plants were initially planted in the thin strip of yard between the side walk and the street, they grew big quickly and caused passerby on the sidewalk to brush past them, sometimes breaking or bending the leaves. The plant did not fit the space well and when winter came, the plants all died. This spring new Castor Bean plants have been planted in the exact same place and now more of the plants have been planted in other parts of the yard. These are individual plants, obviously transplanted into specific places, not a volunteer plant , not some seed that blew in and took root. Its neither here nor there, but Castor Beans are not naturally occurring in our area and they do not seem to do well, with out a great deal of care, which these plants obviously get. Someone puts a great deal of effort into these plants, they are being grown for some purpose. So I wonder, why would someone choose to put a toxic plant like the castor Bean in their yard? Do any of you know people that grow these plants on purpose? Are there medicinal or food usages that are common in other countries or in other parts of the US? Any gardeners out there, have you ever grown this plant, what reasons did you choose it?

The reason I ask this anonymously, is that my first reaction was to wonder if maybe someone isn't using the beans to make Ricin. I want to make absolutely clear that I have NO EVIDENCE that this is the case, and I AM NOT ABOUT to go around accusing anyone of anything. I'd really just like to quell these little twinges of worry. I had a very strong gut reaction when I put Castor Bean plants together with Ricin, and although my intellect knows that worrying is most likely silly, my gut would like some reassurance.
posted by anonymous to Home & Garden (21 answers total)
My first guess would be to poison unwary animals.

I know I've had unpleasant thoughts about the ravaging local ducks taking 85% of my garden fruits ...

My second guess wouldn't be ricin but ricin cover? "Oh everyone grows it, it's innocuous, medicinal."

Like a subtle protest except I can't see people who'd kitchen up ricin think that subtly.
posted by tilde at 7:58 PM on May 22, 2013

I've seen a couple of Castor Bean plants in gardens here and people grow them because they think they look pretty and tropical, they grow big and fast, and deer don't seem to eat them.
posted by The otter lady at 7:59 PM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Castor beans are an extremely common ornamental plant.
posted by purpleclover at 8:07 PM on May 22, 2013 [11 favorites]

If one were intent on making ricin for nefarious purposes then it seems, to my gut, that growing the plants in one's front yard would be a very odd way to go about it.
posted by pompomtom at 8:20 PM on May 22, 2013 [6 favorites]

Read the wikipedia page you linked, particularly the section on horticultural uses.
posted by zamboni at 8:23 PM on May 22, 2013

They are very common in landscapes, usually just sold with the warning to make sure kids don't eat them. I think they are very pretty and as stated above, fairly hearty.
posted by stormygrey at 8:59 PM on May 22, 2013

It is a very pretty plant... and has a long tradition as a hearty, quick-growing ornamental.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:20 PM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lots of ornamental plants are poisonous: hydrangeas, rhododendrons, columbines, English yews, the list goes on.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:26 PM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding Sticherbeast; when little Mitheral came along there was a huge list of plants someone passed along to us that were commonly grown in our area for ornamental purposes that are poisonous. Including monkshood that I had to remove from our fenced back yard which can poison you just by touching the flowers. I was like "Why the hell would anyone plant this in their yard".
posted by Mitheral at 9:51 PM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here in the south, this is a very common ornamental plant, especially popular due to their large, unusually shaped leaves. Also, it's very possible that the folks living in the house don't even know what it is. I'm guessing that MAYBE half the people I know, at least, could not identify a castor bean plant.
posted by raisingsand at 9:56 PM on May 22, 2013

... and Brugmansia (Angel's Trumpet), like many nightshades, is poisonous in every part of it, but glorious healthy examples are to be found throughout the gardens of the Berkeley Hills. Oleander is poisonous in all its parts, and causes contact dermatitis - and is planted in pretty much every lane divider on California's highways.
posted by gingerest at 10:02 PM on May 22, 2013

I think they are very pretty and as stated above, fairly hearty.

It is a very pretty plant... and has a long tradition as a hearty, quick-growing ornamental.

I think you should change that to hardy, before someone gets hurt.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:37 PM on May 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

Seconding raisingsand. I've seen these all around in NC, mainly because they do make a nice contrast to most of the typical landscaping plants, and know for a fact that my neighbors that have castor oil plants (a) have no idea what they are and (b) would probably be APPALLED if they did know.
posted by tigerjade at 1:25 AM on May 23, 2013

Castor beans kill moles in their holes because their roots give off toxins into the soil. People with mole problems in their yard/garden often grow them.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 4:25 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've grown them myself, for the reasons stated above by others: I think they're beautiful, they provided quick cover where we had nothing, and they're hardy. When my daughter was little, I stopped growing them in our yard, but now I am tempted by them again - there seems to be even more variety than there used to be in the market. I also like Moonflowers and a few other plants that either have nefarious uses or are poisonous, and only because they're beautiful and grow where not much else will in my garden - but moved them out when my daughter was small and when I got a rather dim dog that eats everything.

I like them so much that a friend gave me a copy of Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities, and when we were starting up a garden area in the park we were on the dog owner's association for, I was known as the "Danger Gardener" because I knew all the stuff that should and shouldn't be planted (and once drew up plans for a beautiful and deadly garden of all poisonous or painful things.) But nobody ever accused me of growing things for the poison in them because I was evil. I hope nobody ever does, and would hope they ask me first. (I mean, I also have Lily of the Valley and Star of Bethlehem in my garden too...)
posted by peagood at 4:31 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sorry if I freaked anyone out. I'm kind of a suspicious jerk from time to time to time. :P

Looking at the pictures, those are pretty! And maybe, blowing off the ricin thing, it's more like growing poppies or weed - sure there's a variety or two that is a baddy, but the others are just icky. :P

I know one plant that I have in my yard I've been eradicatering for 8 years - Queen's Heart. DANG that thing is such an itch. But when grown as an indoor low-light plant, it's very pretty (I don't know how itchy as I refuse to touch it since giving it over to the new owner of the plant).
posted by tilde at 4:49 AM on May 23, 2013

Well, any poppies you can get for sale through catalogs aren't opium poppies. I'm pretty sure that's by law. You can't get opium (at least, not easily) from California or Iceland poppies, for instance.

Castor Bean seeds are for sale in most garden catalogs as an ornamental. It's a decent ornamental for people who have a hard time with more finicky plants. As noted above, many garden plants are either poisonous or can be used for nefarious purposes, but 99.9999999% of the time they're just there because the property owner thinks they're pretty.
posted by RogueTech at 6:30 AM on May 23, 2013

All poppies grown for flowers contain opium and opium poppy seeds are commonly available.
posted by Mitheral at 7:36 AM on May 23, 2013 [5 favorites]

Thanks, Mitheral! Fascinating, and I'm always glad to learn something new and stop (unintentionally) spreading misinformation.
posted by RogueTech at 8:42 AM on May 23, 2013

My wife grows them because she thinks they're pretty.
posted by rocketman at 10:46 AM on May 23, 2013

Not to hijack the thread, but thank God for you, Mitheral! I know nothing about plants, and after clicking on your monkshood link, realized the pretty purple flower I keep noticing is incredibly dangerous. I. had. no. idea. Tomorrow, I don gloves, and pull it out, root and branch.
posted by heigh-hothederryo at 8:25 PM on May 23, 2013

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