Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Castor Beans and Castor Oil
Nature Bulletin No. 503-A   October 20, 1973
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Young Americans of this generation seem to be growing up without much personal experience with castor oil. We parents and grandparents, however, still shudder at memories of times when, after threats or promises, we made a face, closed our eyes, opened our mouth and gulped great spoonfuls of the thick oily stuff. Today, although more castor oil is produced than ever before, only a tiny fraction of it is used as a laxative.

In temperate regions such as ours, the Castor Oil Plant or Castor Bean is an annual up to 15 feet tall, a plant that grows anew from its seed each year. Nothing is better for a fast-growing ornamental screen about your home. In warmer climates it is a perennial, becoming a tree 30 or 40 feet tall. The leaves are very large, often 20 to 30 inches across, deeply cleft and star-shaped with five to twelve points. The clusters of flowers are followed by spiny capsules which, when ripe, pop open to release three large glossy black or mottled seeds. The Romans thought the castor bean seed looked like a blood-filled dog tick, so they called it by the same Latin name, Ricinus.

Africa is supposed to be the original home of the wild castor bean. It probably became a camp follower of man back in prehistoric times when it grew without care about his dwellings long before its usefulness was discovered. The ancient Egyptians valued its oil almost as highly as that of the olive for their lamps. Over the ages, its cultivation spread to many of the warmer countries of the Old World and, then, to the New World. It escaped and now runs wild in clearings, along roadsides and on dump heaps throughout the tropics and subtropics. Both wild and cultivated castor beans are harvested by the natives of many parts of the world. The unripe clusters of seed capsules are spread on the ground until they dry, split open, and the seeds fall out. Then they are winnowed by hand and sold or bartered, often in very small quantities. The pomace, or cake remaining after the oil is pressed out, is poisonous to livestock but can be used for fertilizer.

The total world crop of castor beans is about a billion pounds per year, yielding half that poundage of castor oil. The principal producing countries are India and Brazil with lesser amounts from other Latin- American countries, the West Indies, Africa, other parts of Asia, and the United States. American manufacturers use about 40 percent of the world's crop and import nine-tenths of this. Castor Oil and its products have hundreds of industrial uses and chemical research steadily adds more. A substantial amount goes into paints, varnishes and lacquers. A lipstick, a hair tonic, or a shampoo may contain over one-third castor oil. Made into special lubricants for jet engines and racing cars, it does not become stiff with cold nor unduly thin with heat. It is made into plastics, soaps, waxes, hydraulic fluids and ink. During the war it was stockpiled as a strategic material.

The Baker Castor Oil Company of New York is the largest manufacturer in the industry and has been through most of its hundred-year history. During the past ten years this company has promoted the development of low-growing, high yielding castor hybrids that produce a ton of beans to the acre; also special machinery which allows the American grower to compete in the world market. The 18,000 acres now planted to castor beans -- mostly in California, Arizona and Oklahoma -- is triple that of last year and, soon, is expected to reach 120,000 acres.

Bothered by moles in your lawn? Stick castor beans in their burrows.

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