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Palma Christe, or Castor Bean Plant, Has Varied History

February 11, 2019
Castor bean plants are shown in April 2017 as they are propagated at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

How many of you can recall a bottle of castor oil in your grandmother’s or great grandmother’s medicine cabinet? I know I can. I recall hearing stories of how my grandmother would give out castor oil any time there was a complaint of illness or indigestion.

Thankfully, she never offered it to me. I think Pepto-Bismol was the recommended remedy during my childhood. The thought of drinking a thick liquid akin to motor oil would have created a miraculous improvement in my health. The power of suggestion, right?

Castor oil comes from the castor bean plant (Ricinus communis). It is made from pressing the seeds, which are not really beans at all. Colorado State University tells us this plant grows in waste areas, along roadsides and is also cultivated as an ornamental. It is an annual, or short-lived, perennial in warm climates: csuvth.colostate.edu/poisonous_plants/Plants/Details/23

Cornell University shares that if we want to grow a castor bean plant in our home garden, then we should not let it flower or go to seed. The seeds are quite toxic. This plant’s seeds have a variety of uses from motor oil (I told you so) to an insecticide, and mole and gopher repellent: ecommons.cornell.edu/bitstream/handle/1813/56115/castor-oil-MRP-NYSIPM.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

The seeds are “intricately mottled” with varying shades of colors ranging from black and gray to maroon and white. The University of Wisconsin-Madison shares castor oil was also used 4,000 years ago by the Egyptians to light their lamps. And, it currently is used in paints and varnishes, soap, inks and plastic: wimastergardener.org/article/castor-bean-ricinus-communis

There are mixed opinions as to the proposed health benefits of castor oil. Dr. Andrew Weil states he has seen no scientific evidence that it works for some of the common historical uses, such as relieving constipation and soothing skin inflammations: drweil.com/health-wellness/body-mind-spirit/hair-skin-nails/choosing-castor-oil

On the other hand, Dr. Josh Axe appears to be a proponent of castor oil. He states it has been used in India for healing skin issues, soothing digestion, and for its antibacterial properties. Due to the oil’s compounds, which contain fatty acids and flavonoids, Dr. Axe suggests it may also support the body’s lymphatic system.

Dr. Axe shares castor oil can boost circulation, moisturize the skin, fight mild acne, help with arthritis pain, and give you strong, shiny hair. We can also thank Dr. Axe for this week’s title. He says the plant was referred to Palma Christe because “the shape of the plant’s leaves were said to resemble the palm of Christ:” draxe.com/castor-oil

My own experience with castor oil is limited. I tried it on my hair one time, but due to that motor lube consistency I had greasy hair for about a week. It was shiny, though!

Kelley Rawlsky has an M.S. in horticulture and is the director of Bringing People and Plants Together, an organization dedicated to bringing horticulture education and therapy to the community. For more information: PeopleAndPlantsTogether @gmail.com or follow us on Facebook.

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