Castor plant

People have in fact suffered ricin poisoning after eating castor beans, but fears of the plant are exaggerated.

Depending on your source of information, the dangers posed by castor-oil plants are wildly overstated or significantly understated.

The truth lies midway between science and fantasy.

Ricin is found in castor-oil plants’ bean-like seeds. It is one of the most toxic substances ever discovered. In February, Science magazine reported a cocktail of antibodies tested on mice showed promise, but for now, there is no antidote.

It’s true: People have suffered ricin poisoning after eating castor beans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but eating them does not necessarily result in poisoning. Most likely, you would need to chow down on a figurative bushelful to cause serious harm.

Castor oil is a time-tested laxative. It is used in lubricants, soaps, paints, inks and more. Medical folklore holds the foul-tasting substance renders a variety of wonders, including stimulating hair growth and boosting immunity.

The hype about castor-oil plants can be traced to a 1978 murder, a 2012 episode of the television show, “Breaking Bad,” and a 2013 letter a Texas woman addressed to President Obama.

In the Umbrella Murder, a notorious crime of the Cold War era, an assassin used ricin to kill Georgi Markov, 49, a Bulgarian playwright and journalist. Markov defected to Europe in 1969, where he continued to openly oppose Bulgaria’s pro-Soviet leader, Todor Zhivkov.

At a bus stop near Waterloo Station in London, the assassin stabbed Markov using the point of an umbrella, injecting into his thigh a perforated metallic pellet containing ricin. KGB agents arranged the murder, according to defectors who later left the Soviet Union.

In television land, a “Breaking Bad” character makes ricin in his superlab, using the toxin to lace a cigarette. It is not entirely clear to me whether the TV target died from ricin poisoning or from eating Lily of the Valley, but that’s a column for another day.

Nine months after the “Breaking Bad” episode aired, a Texas woman concocted ricin using castor-bean seeds and lye. She mailed some of the granules to the White House in an apparent attempt to implicate and damage her ex-husband.

By then, the castor-oil plants’ reputation for danger was sealed.

In a 2009 study, “Ricin as a weapon of mass terror – separating fact from fiction,” researchers note though ricin is deadly, as an agent of bio-terror, “it is unsuitable and therefore does not deserve the press attention and subsequent public alarm that has been created.”

Targeting a large population would “necessitate a quantity of powder in excess of several metric tons,” the researchers said. “The technical and logistical skills required to formulate such a mass of powder to the required size is beyond the ability of terrorists who typically operate out of a kitchen in a small urban dwelling or in a small ill-equipped laboratory.”

I plan on continuing to cultivate castor-oil plants. To be safe, I’ll probably take the extra, largely unnecessary step of deadheading before the red, puffy flowers set seed. This way, I’ll fully enjoy these handsome garden giants, free of the slightest worry.

Planted along a wooden fence, in front of red-flowering cannas and nearby red-hot pokers, lemon grass and purple-flowering hyacinth beans, castor-oil plants help lend a fun, tropical look to the garden.

This juxtaposition of the exotic and staid, a riot of color and untamed form set against the soldierly lines of everyday vegetables – oh, it all greatly entertains me.

What can I say? We all get our kicks where we can.

Quintin Ellison is editor of The Sylva Herald. When not at work, she’s likely to be in her garden.