“The castor oil nut, or simply oil nut, was a purgative and tasted terrible but few youngsters escaped getting a dose at least once.”
– Cromwell Ebanks (CINA Memory Bank Interview)
Common Name(s): Castor Bean, Castor Oil Plant, Castor Oil Nut, Oil Nut
Scientific Name: Ricinus Communis
Medicinal Uses: Made from the beans of the plant, castor oil is used as a laxative, a hair conditioner, or to treat coughs, pain, headaches, sinus congestion, fever, urinary tract infections, and postpartum pain. The leaves were sometimes applied as a poultice to treat boils or to draw heat from the body.
With so many medicinal uses, it’s no wonder Nesta Ebanks described castor oil as “our chief medicine” in her interview with the National Archives. Ofttimes, it seems, good medicine tastes terrible. Such is certainly the case with castor oil and there are very few older Caymanians who were not subjected to this foul-tasting oil in their youth.
You’ve probably seen this plant growing along the roadside or on cleared land, its leaves spreading wide like so many hands.
Despite the medicinal benefits of the oil, the beans themselves contain the highly toxic compound known as ricin. In fact, four to eight beans are considered a lethal dose for the average adult. To deactivate the tricin, the beans must be heated in a pan or oven before being pounded into a paste and boiled to extract the oil.
Something I learned while researching this plant is that it is considered a highly potent allergen, producing very fine pollen that can easily be breathed in and cause severe allergic reactions. The sap can also cause an allergic reaction in some people. It’s always good to learn how dangerous a plant is after you’ve spent your whole childhood playing with it!
The beans are what gives this plant its genus name (Ricinus) which means “tick” in Latin… Which is interesting because rosemary also owes its genus name to its resemblance to these parasitic arachnids!
As the only species in the genus, its species name simply means “common opinion”. Its common name, however, has a more interesting history: Apparently, castor comes from the Greek kastor, meaning “beaver” and refers to an ancient practice that involved making a perfume base from the dried perineal glands of the beaver (The Complex Case of Castor’s Etymology).