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Castor Bean: An Old-Fashioned Plant in the Garden

Ricinus communis, or castor bean, is a plant that has been part of the garden for centuries.

There is some danger in the plant because of its fruit with a certain poisonous feature to it.

Ricinus communis. [Courtesy of Plant World Seeds]

Nonetheless in the nineteeth century the ricinus was used for a patent medicine made by the Shakers in Canterbury, New Hampshire.

The medicinal beverage was called Corbett’s Concentrated Syrup of Sarsaparilla and contained ten percent alcohol.

At one point the castor bean was part of the recipe for the beverage.


For almost fifteen hundred years, Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist Discorides (40-90 A.D.) was regarded as the ultimate authority on plants and medicine.

Since he first pointed to the importance of plants to aid in healing human ailments, people in every culture have seen plants as medicine.  

The Shakers followed in that tradition of Discorides and considered plants essential for medical needs.

For example, the castor beansold in drugstores everywhere in the late nineteenth centurycan be traced through our oldest botanical records dated to the third century B.C.  

This plant was also listed in the group of herbs offered by the Shakers.


Lawrence Griffith, author of Flowers and Herbs of Early America, says,

“Though its history is steeped in medical and utilitarian lore, castor bean’s appeal today is largely ornamental.”

Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) recommended it for the landscape.

Here is an illustration he included in his magazine. [below]

The tall Ricinus communis or castor bean [far left] in Vick’s Monthly Magazine, 1880.

Griffith says, “The idea of regarding plants as strictly ornamental objects was just beginning towards the end of the sixteenth century.”

That’s certainly the journey of the castor bean.

Today you see gardeners plant castor bean, simply for that tall, leafy appeal it has.

L. H. Bailey said it all in his Standard Cyclopoedia of Horticulture (1901).

He wrote: “Ricinus is one of the best plants for giving a tropical effect in beds and borders or planted singly.”

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