Castor-oil plantBotanical name: Ricinus...

PLANT NOTEBOOK

December 07, 1991|By Amalie Adler Ascher

Castor-oil plant

Botanical name: Ricinus communis

Pronunciation: RISS-in-us

Family: Euphorbiaceae (Spurge)

Origin: Tropical Africa

Class: Annual

Display period: Summer

Height: 8 to 15 feet

Environment: Sun As its popular name suggests, the castor-oil plant is indeed the source of castor oil. The oil is obtained by crushing seeds lodged in the plant's prickly red fruits. If eaten directly, however, the seeds are poisonous to humans and animals. They contain ricin, an extremely toxic protein. To keep the seeds from falling into the hands of children, the fruits of plants in a garden should be removed before they fully develop.

Castor oil is produced in Brazil, India, Thailand and now, China, according to Dominic Simone, a project leader for CasChem Inc. The Bayonne, N.J., firm is an importer of castor oil and a manufacturer of the oil's chemical derivatives.

These days, Mr. Simone says, castor oil has far exceeded its traditional function as a laxative. It's used now in the manufacture of cosmetics, lubricants, polyurethane and coatings for metals, among other things. All of which makes the castor-bean plant, as Ricinus is also called, a conversation piece.

But the castor-bean will also win approval as a garden specimen for its unusual and majestic form. Its palm-like leaves, 3 feet long at the maximum, are as ornamental as you'll find. The plant is easily grown from seed sown in the ground after danger of frost has past. If you're not removing them for safety reasons, the seeds can be saved for new plants from year to year.

Given the plant's height and massive spread, it makes an effective temporary shrub. A neighbor of ours, for example, routinely plants two specimens on the front lawn of his city town house every year as his sole landscaping. The plant works well too, in island beds. Gerard J. Moudry, chief horticulturist of the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks, uses the castor-bean as the centerpiece in municipal displays of ornamental grasses and cannas.

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