Living Garden Sculpture: Castor Bean Plant

Castor Bean Plant

Large pots of castor bean plants waiting for homes. Some may try to follow you home.

There’s one way to have instant tropical drama in your garden and that’s the addition of a castor bean plant (or three) to your landscape. These massive palm-like frondy beauties (Ricinus communis) are native to Africa and can grow up to 15 feet high in the right location. I can’t say they’ve ever achieved those heights in my own garden, but they’ve topped out at over six feet for me. I used to grow these from seed and hadn’t thought of them for awhile until my sister started hankering after some. Our mother used to grow them in her garden every year, so we have fond summer memories of these plants.  I hadn’t seen the plants anywhere in the past few years, or the seed, so I was thrilled today to see these healthy specimens for sale at Fiesta Gardens, already about three feet tall in large pots.

Apart from the striking, visual drama of their structure, the colours are also satisfying: variable shades of greeny bronze with bright red stems and veins. A clever, functional use of the castor bean plant can be to cover up an unsightly view, or to create a screened area in your garden.

Globular, prickly, red pods (that you can see just beginning to form in the picture above) contain the spotted seeds. The unusual looking seed pods add to the sculptural and decorative quality of the plant; however they are considered poisonous, (the toxin ricin can be extracted from the seeds) so caution is necessary in making sure that pets or children don’t ingest them. Cutting off the seed pods and disposing of them can ensure that won’t happen.

Like all plants with known poisonous aspects, cultivation of these plants is a bit controversial, and in some areas there is talk of banning them. However, a great deal of everyday plants that we commonly live with are also poisonous, including monkshood, chrysanthemums, lily of the valley and rhubarb leaves.

Unfortunately these tender plants live only one season, and come frost, they’ll be gone; but while they’re here, what a show!

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