I have admired this plant in seed catalogs each winter for several years now and resisted the temptation each time, assuming that our summers are too cool and brief for it. But after seeing it in person at Monticello last summer, I finally made up my mind that I had to have it! And it seems there is some hope for me, since Mrs. Grieve says that it has even ripened seed as far north as Christiania (now Oslo) in Norway! I am following her advice to plant the seeds in March and grow "under glass" until early June, although I am wondering what containers I will keep them in if they grow at the rate they are supposed to!
The Castor Bean is thought to be a native of India and East Africa but has naturalized throughout much of the tropics, where it grows to the size of a small tree. In temperate countries, it has long been grown as an annual, and according to William Robinson, it is actually "much prettier in the state in which it is seen with us". Joseph Breck describes it as "a very luxuriant, strong-growing annual, sometimes found in the garden, not so much for its beauty as for curiosity". But I think it is beautiful as well as curious!
Its botanical name, Ricinus, means "tick", which "loathsome animal" the seeds very much resemble! Phillip Miller says in his Gardener's Dictionary that it was "commonly known in the West-Indies by the name of Oil-Nut, or Agnus Castus". A much older name for the Castor Bean was Palma Christi, meaning Palm or Hand of Christ, because some think that the leaves look like a hand, and also possibly because of its healing powers. Jefferson knew it by this name. It was included in a list of seed saved for 1794 and was planted around the nursery at Monticello in 1811.
But this plant's fascinating history goes back much farther. Its oil was used by the ancient Egyptians for their lamps, and the seeds have been found in their tombs. And perhaps most interesting of all, it is believed to be the same plant that shaded Jonah in the Bible, although it has been translated as "gourd":
And the Lord God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.
But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered.
And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live.
And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.
Then said the Lord, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:
And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle. (Jonah 4:6-11)
The original Hebrew word for this "gourd" was Kikayon. The Castor Bean was known even up to Gerard's time as Kik, and he says that the Greeks and Egyptians called it Kiki. "Moreover", he writes, "a certaine Rabbine mooveth a question, saying, what is Kik? Hereunto Reseh Lachish maketh awnser in Ghemara, saying, Kik is nothing else but Jonas his Kikaijon". Yet the identity of this plant has long been a subject of debate. Many translators believed it to be an ivy or a gourd, because of the rapidity of its growth. Perhaps the most famous dispute is that between St, Augustine and St. Jerome, although it seems that it was an old controversy even then. Gerard speaks of this in his Herball: "But the olde Latine writers knew it by the name Cucurbita, which evidently is manifested by an historie, which Saint Augustine recordeth in his Epistle to Saint Jerome, where in effect he writteth thus: That name Kikayon is of small moment, yet so small a matter caused a great tumult in Africa. For on a time a certaine Bishop having an occasion to intreat of this which is mentioned in the fourth chapter of Jonas his prephecie (in a collation or sermon, which he made in his cathedrall church or place of assemblie) said, that this plant was called Cucurbita, a Gourde, because it increased unto so great a quantitie in so short a space, or else (saith he) it is called Hedera [Ivy]. Upon the noveltie and untruth of this his doctrine, the people were greatly offended, and there arose a great tumult and hurly burly; so that the Bishop was inforced to go to the Jewes, to aske their judgement as touching the name of this plant. And when he had received of them the true name, which was Kikayon, he made his open recantation and confessed his error, and was justly accused for a falsifier of the holy scripture".
In his response to St. Augustine's epistle, St. Jerome says that the Hebrew manuscript does indeed have the word "ciceion", which he says is a "kind of shrub having large leaves like a vine, and when planted it quickly springs up to the size of a small tree, standing upright by its own stem, without requiring any support of canes or poles, as both gourds and ivy do". But he goes on to say that no one would know what he meant if he had used the word "ciceion", and so he used ivy instead, "that I might not differ from all other translators".
Dr. Pusey quotes an account of the Castor Bean being destroyed in one night by black caterpillars, which "suddenly cut off its leaves that only their bare ribs remain". This is also a very interesting point in favor of this plant as the same as the one in the book of Jonah.
It was mentioned by several ancient writers including Pliny and Dioscorides, who speak of the seeds as a "drastic purgative". The following is from A History of the Materia Medica (1751):
"Dioscorides prescribes the Kernels of these Seeds, thirty for a Dose, which he says will vomit and purge; and that very strongly; but Matthiolus very reasonably suspects that there is some Error in the Copies in this Case, and that the true reading should be three Grains instead of thirty. The Arabians never gave more than five or six of them, and they talk of their operating very violently; and when they sometimes talk of Doses of fifteen of them, which is but half Dioscorides's number, as the Text stands, they record such Effects as no one wou'd wish to see a Patient exposed to".
I am surprised at even the dose of the Arabians, for Mrs. Grieve says that only three seeds have been known to kill an adult and quotes a letter published in The Chemist and Druggist, about a medical student who nearly died after taking an emulsion which he had made with no more than six of the seeds. The entire plant is highly poisonous, and yet the oil, when properly extracted, has many valuable medicinal uses, both internally and topically!
The date of its introduction to Europe is a little uncertain. Many historians say it was first introduced to England about the time of Turner. But it sounds to me like it was already a common garden plant in 1548, when he published his Names of Herbes. He writes: "It groweth onely in gardines that I have seen". Gerard, writing in 1596, says that it grew in his garden, "and many other gardens likewise". It seems to have been a well-known plant in America by Jefferson's time.
I may be the only gardener in my area who has ever been crazy enough to attempt to grow it, but I am still hopeful and very excited to see it in my garden!
Joanna is a passionate gardener and seed-saver living in Maine. You can also follow her gardening adventures at Heirloom Cottage Garden.