Father Kino may have brought castor plants into the Southwest. The plants were growing in mission gardens by the late 1700’s.
Castor oil comes from the seeds of Ricinus communis. (More about the name – here)
Some highly effective medicines, insecticides, and uses of the oil come from the castor seeds (they are not – botanically speaking – beans). Caution right here at the start – castor is NOT a plant to grow for home remedies. All parts of the plant contain both useful and highly toxic compounds.
We include it because it was used in Father Kino’s time, indeed was planted in his mission gardens, plus it is a lovely ornamental plant. How to grow these lovely plants on Gardening With Soule – here.
Millennia of Castor Use
The oil of castor seeds has been used for millennia, with seeds found in 4000 year-old Egyptian tombs. There are also references to castor in ancient Sanskrit and Chinese medicinal writings. In the Orient, castor use was topical and as a laxative, with similar use in the Mediterranean. Greek travelers noted the use of castor seed oil for body ointments in Egypt and Persia. They said it helped improve hair growth and texture. The Ebers Papyrus is an ancient Egyptian medical treatise believed to date from 1552 B.C.E. Translated in 1872, it describes castor oil as a laxative. The slow-burning oil was also used to fuel lamps.
Latkes, a food eaten to celebrate Chanukah, are said by some to commemorate the oily cakes fed to Greek soldiers on the eve of a major battle. Unbeknownst to the Greeks, their captured Jewish slave woman had cooked the cakes in castor oil, rendering most of the soldiers somewhat distracted and less than fit for battle.
Castor in the Southwest
Brought to the New World by the Spaniards primarily for medicine, Native peoples found additional uses for the plant. To this day Seri use the seeds in tanning hides. They crush seeds, mix them with salt, and apply the mixture to the stretched hides for two to three days.
Castor seeds are toxic due to ricin, a chemical present in the flesh of the seeds, but not present in the oil. Reports of human poisoning are rare because seed coat is quite durable and can pass intact through the human digestive system. That said – don’t mess with this, the lethal dose in adults is four to eight seeds, but even one can make you very sick. Poisoning occurs when animals ingest broken seeds or break the seed by chewing.
Castor oil and its derivatives have applications in the manufacturing of soaps, lubricants, hydraulic and brake fluids, paints, dyes, coatings, inks, cold resistant plastics, waxes and polishes, nylon, pharmaceuticals and perfumes.
When it comes to beauty products – you will find castor there too. The oil has a high saponification index, making it useful in making homemade soaps, lotions and skin balms. But since the danger of poisoning is so great, it is advisable to use commercially available castor oil, and not press your own.
Make Your Own Herbal Lotion
For a class on making your own lotion, which includes the option of castor oil, visit our online class site – on New Zenler!
Note – this is a two step process. First you sign up to be a member of the site (free), then you sign up (and pay) to take the class.
Thanks for reading!
More cooking and using Southwestern luscious herbs in Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today (Tierra del Sol Institute Press). This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute will get a few pennies at no additional cost to you.
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