Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Toxic & Deadly or Useful?

Castor Bean Plant
Ricinus communis, Euphorbiacae family

Some people would classify a toxic and potentioally deadly plant as useful, I say proceed with caution.  
The Castor Bean plant is of the Euphorbiaceae family whose relatives are the poinsetta and rubber tree, all three are known for their irritating milky white sap.

The Castor plant is a well known garden weed that can grow up to 10 ft tall in the right climate. It has seen a resurgence in gardens as a decorative folliage as it is an impressive looking plant that does well in droughts. It has deeply lobed leaves and prickly seed pods.

All parts of the 
plant that is toxic- 3 or 4 well chewed beans are enough to cause death. They contain the poison ricinus communis or ricin and are deadly if injested, however, few actually die by chewing the beans as the body immediately rejects the toxin with vomit purging. If ingested- DO go to the emergency room IMMEDIATELY!! Death by castor bean is slow and very painful. Symptoms of burning of throat and mouth, abdominal pain, purging, and bloody diarrhea,  generally begin within 2-4 hours but can be delayed as much as 36. "Within several days there is severe dehydration, a drop in blood pressure and a decrease in urine." If treated, full recovery is possible. If left untreated, death will occur in 3-5 days.

Uses of the Castor Bean 

Surprisingly the castor bean is used in a number of different products and is grown in India, China, Brazil, and Ethiopia. Castor oil being the primary derivative, (the oil is cold pressed and the ricin is not present) it is used in jet and racing car lubricants  plastics manufacture, lacquers, paint thinners, cosmetics- 50% of lipstick is castor oil by weight. It is also used in nail polishes to prevent cracking when dry.

New uses have been discovered for caster oil, giving the plant a new purpose. A few years ago, in 2006, a Japanese company, Fujitsu announced that they were going to be using castor bean oil to produce a bio-based polymer that would be used for "
small components of notebook PCs and mobile phones, such as connector covers." The material's superior  flexibility will allow it to be used in more products.

"Castor oil in a processed form, called Polyglycerol polyricinoleate--or PGPR, is currently being used in chocolate bar manufacture as a less expensive substitute for cocoa butter."

Castor oil is the base of many commercial mole repellents for lawn care. The Castor Bean plant has a relative, the Mole Bean plant or caper spurge, Euphorbia lathyris, whose toxic sap is a great repellent to moles. 

The castor bean oil is also used medically- generally as a laxative, where it is normally considered safe for constipation relief unless too much is ingested and then diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting may occur. However, some say that it can be used in wart removal. It is also being studied for use in battling cancer.

The castor bean is also used as a form of contraception in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. It is said that swallowing 3-5 whole beans with water at the beginning of menstruation will prevent conception for up to 12 months.

“The results obtained confirmed that the variety minor seed and the other seed varieties are potential oral contraceptives, since all of them demonstrated anti-fertility activity.

“The methanol extracts of the seed varieties gave positive tests for both steroid(s) and alkaloids. Sex hormones are known to exert both a positive and a negative feedback effects on the release of gonadotrophins from the pituitary gland. In the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, the combined effect of oestrogen and progesterone will be to block the release of luteinizing hormone (LH) and the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) from the pituitary.

“This situation helps inhibit maturation of the follicle in the ovary and prevent ovulation. Since extracts gave positive tests for steroids, and sex hormones being steroidal compounds, the plants’ sterols (phytosterols) may be suspected to be responsible for the anti-fertility effects of the seeds of Ricinus communis.”
In another interesting twist, the leaves are used by the same women of Nigeria, if eaten to provoke menstruation and as a poultice to increase breast milk flow. In the Ivory Coast- Upper Volta the leaves are pounded and are used as a poultice for swellings, and a leaf is tied to the forehead for headaches. "They are a treatment for haemorrhoids in Ethiopia. In India they are used for rheumatism, lumbago, sciatica, etc, and in Somalia for rheumatism."

Resourced Articles for Further Reading:

Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart-- a fun, easy read on all sorts of deadly plants accompanied by interesting stories featuring the plant. ISBN: 978-1-56512-683-1