More Recent Comments

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Castor Oil

Today's Botany Photo of the Day is Ricinus communis, or the castor bean plant. I don't think I've ever seen a photo of this plant even though it's very famous.

This is where castor oil comes from. When I was a child castor oil was routinely used to relieve constipation. Children soon learned to lie about their bowel movements in order to avoid the cure.

One thing I didn't know is that the plant is full of a deadly toxin called ricin. In fact, there's so much ricin in this plant that ingesting a single seed could do serious harm to a child.

Fortunately, ricin is very soluble in water and during preparation of castor oil the ricin is removed. The Wikipedia site says that workers who prepare castor oil are at considerable risk, not just from ricin toxin but also from allegenic compounds in the plant surface [Castor Oil].

Makes you wonder how our ancestors ever discovered the important and useful properties of castor oil.

The general public needs to be more aware of the dangers of natural chemicals in plants. These days, there's an implicit assumption that trace amounts of man made chemicals are bad [e.g. bisphenol] but everything natural is good. The fact is, ingesting some of the herbal remedies in so-called "health food" stores can be far more dangerous to your health than drinking water from a Nalgene® bottle.


NickM said...

This stuff grows like a weed (actually, as a weed) on the roadside in southern California, e.g. Santa Barbara.

Wavefunction said...

When my father was a child, out of curiosity he ingested one or two seeds of castor that were kept outside for drying. Very luckily my grandfather was a doctor and induced vomiting right away. Incidentally we had wild castor plants growing around our house everywhere.

Anonymous said...

“Makes you wonder …. “

It’s not as if most plants much like being eaten anyway. People must be weird to think that (like auditors) plants are here to help us.

Feel sorry for cassava. The poor plant goes to such lengths to be inedible, poisonous even, and now it’s a staple if mildly disgusting food. Clever people, whoever cracked it. Pity about those who didn’t get it quite right. And to the unknown person who invented the cassava-squeezer, another beautiful example of almost-irreducible complexity©, sui generis*, hats off.

*the Malayan finger trap seems to be derivative, but I can’t find a reference right now.