Beauty and the Beanstalk

   Written by on January 22, 2015 at 2:45 pm

When I was considering the topic of the column this week, I zeroed in on an article in Southern Living about beans – plain ol’ simple food, beans. But they do present an opportunity to decorate in the garden because most beans have beautiful, if small, blooms. You can train them on a trellis, run them up sticks, twine them around cornstalks; in short, they’re a two-for-one project: flowering vines and delicious produce. What problem could there possibly be?

logo-a walk in the gardenWell, I’ll tell you. “Beauty and the Beanstalk” is quite right (the more confused I get, the older I am), because the contradictory implication applies to a beautiful bean plant with giant hidden trouble.

Some of you may be old enough to remember being dosed with castor oil as a child. And here’s the big “I had no idea” fact: contained in abundance in the seeds and in smaller amounts throughout the rest of the plant is a deadly poison called ricin.

Used for years and years as a treatment for general digestive maladies, castor oil, which is derived from the seeds of the plant, if not properly extracted, can deliver fatal doses of ricin. Symptoms of ricin poisoning begin within hours after ingestion. They include stomach irritation, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain, increased heart rate, low blood pressure, profuse sweating, collapse, convulsions and death within a few days. There is no antidote for ricin poisoning. And just to show how deadly it is, there are ongoing concerns about it being incorporated in biological warfare; most recently it was found in Al Qaeda caves in Afghanistan.

Now for the beauty part. Pictured at the top of this column is a mature castor bean plant and it is just gorgeous. It is a native of Africa, but over the years it was introduced in various locations around the world and can now be found as a wild and sometimes invasive plant, even in the U.S. In our climate, grown as an annual, the castor bean plant can grow to a height of ten feet. When planted in full sun, castor bean seeds grow at an alarming rate, given ample fertilizer and water. They are intolerant of frost though and will die when the temperature drops below thirty-two degrees.

Castor bean plants have huge lobed, star-shaped leaves which can reach three feet in length. They make a bold statement of color and texture when planted in groups or individually in a pot on the patio. The ornamental variety of the castor bean has bright red or purple foliage. The flowers, however, are fairly inconspicuous and really should be removed from the plant as soon as possible. This practice will prevent the formation of those deadly seeds which produce the ricin-rich oil.

We grow lots of poisonous plants in our gardens, but the castor bean plant is the deadliest of all. With a good dose of common sense though, the castor bean plant can be grown safely.

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