Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Castor 'Zanzibariensis'

Long time readers here will, I'm sure, immediately recognize one of our annual behemoths of the garden, Ricinus communis 'Zanzibariensis.' We plant a few Castors every year because we just love their lush tropical look and appreciate how easy they are and how quickly they grow! This particular one was planted from seed a little over a month ago and look at it (as of 8-16-08) now! At this point, it's surpassed Fernymoss' head (he's 6 ft tall), and with the regular feedings of fish emulsion he's been giving it, with a little luck and plenty of sun it should get pretty tall and perhaps even bloom before frost. (If you'd like to see just how big it got last year, click on the name in the labels below the post.)
The one we pampered and fed last year topped out at about 14 ft tall by October, bloomed, and put on tons of seeds, from which this one is growing (as well as the smaller one near it). Though we were really late getting these seeds in (sheesh, July!) this guy has been really happy keeping the new peonies (who are fading now) company in the NE corner of our backyard. And no matter where we have them in the yard, they are always eye catchers for passersby, who sometimes stop to ask what on earth it is, marveling that something so obviously tropical is growing in the middle of the city in summer! Of course, they're only an annual here and usually have been killed off around the time Halloween comes around, but if you look at my post from last Halloween, it hadn't yet had the killing frost and was a great spot to pose in my Halloween garb.
Ok, here's my usual disclaimer about these plants ... yes, they are the source of Castor Bean Oil (the dreaded bane of constipated kids everywhere when I was little). I'm not exactly clear how, during the oil extraction process, they go from being deadly toxic to just an oil used a purgative, so to speak. But for all practical purposes, anyone growing them should be aware that every part of this plant is extremely toxic, so if you have children or pets who are prone to munching on plants, it's probably not a good idea to have them around unless everyone understands just how toxic they are.

I recall a news story from a few months ago about a man in Las Vegas who tried to commit suicide by eating some seeds, and people investigating the case were flipping out about possible contamination to the room in the hotel where he made his attempt. I thought all that was a bit silly, because if you just practice common sense with them, the chances of experiencing such effects are very slim and in over 10 years of growing them, we've never had any problems. The seeds, however, are perhaps the most toxic part of the plant, so they should be stored well out of the reach of anyone or any pets who might find them and think they'd make a good snack. I read in one article that it only would take about 5-6 seeds to kill a human if they are chewed up and ingested ... so a word to the wise.

Having given that disclaimer, they make great architectural specimens in the sunny garden, and their only drawback is having to saw them down after it has died from a freeze. We usually just clean up the dead leaves and leave it in the ground over the winter and saw it down in the spring when it has started to decompose a bit. We also plant another variety, 'Carmencita Rose,' which is a "dwarf" variety that only reaches about 8 ft tall (lol). This year we just popped a few seeds in a huge pot out front and are growing them that way this year, just so they get big enough to draw attention, since we didn't get them in early enough to really place them strategically. 'Carmencita' is a really stunning shade of bronzy red that positively glows in the sun, and is definitely a variety worth trying if you want to try your hand at growing these tropical giants.


Roses and Lilacs said...

A very exotic looking plant. I haven't seen anyone grow it in years. It must be hard to buy seeds? What is the bloom like?

FARfetched said...

Thanks for reminding me — I wanted to tell you about this.

I was helping Mrs. Fetched's mom pick beans in her garden last weekend, and asked her if this row of plants growing nearby were weeds.

“They're castor." And I immediately thought of you!

“Um… why are they in the garden here?"

“They make good rat poison. The rats will eat the seeds — they taste good to the rats, but it kills 'em."

Beats warfarin, I guess.

Gail said...


That is some big plant! Wow, fourteen feet by by Halloween....that is the Frankenstein of tropic plants!

Many years ago I remember seeing these seeds for sale as mole poison! We don't have moles...too many rocks!

Now I must find the Halloween post!


Janet said...

Off to Zanzibar to see the Zanzibarbarians!! :)

Loved the photos of the Praying Mantises. All have fled my rose garden, alas.

And as to your calendar spread: I'd love to purchase one from you my dear! I'm azulism@yahoo.com

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

Hi Marnie!
Exotic it sure is! We see a few planted around town here and there but it's not as common as it used to be. Seeds aren't hard to get, you just have to know where to get them. Our original ones came from Select Seeds (see sidebar at right), but it's true you rarely see them for sale in big box stores or nurseries.

To see the blooms, click on the labels below the post for examples from the past couple of years. They're rather other-worldly looking and very prickly.

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

Hey FAR,
See, we're not the only ones who grow them, hehe. You have a smart and handy MIL, and hats off to her for using an organic and natural solution for her rat problems.

I've always read that they will repel moles in your yard if you have that problem. We've never had moles, and maybe our annual castors are why?

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

Hi Gail,
You maybe could get even bigger ones down your way if you wanted ... I'm not sure how they react to clay but they put one heck of a mean looking taproot on! I often joke when we get them pulled in the spring (if we can) they'd make great spears.

Not surprised about the mole marketing (see my comment to FAR above), did they recommend just planting them or actually trying to get the moles to eat them?

LOL, that Halloween post is just a silly piece to provide some size context. Pepa and her not quite tall enough (visible) friend Harvey posing....

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

Janet dearest!
Good to see you back, as always...

Aren't those mantises cool? We found another one just outside the back door on the side of the house today, but he was much smaller than those others I pictured. Too bad they've abandoned you, or maybe they're just hiding?

When the calendar is actually a reality, I'll probably be sending a lot of them out just as gifts, and I could never accept money from the likes of you! :-)

If work ever calms down (no sign in sight yet), I've got to email you ... I owe you big time!

boran2 said...

Thanks, IVG. That's an amazing plant. I knew nothing about castor. Is handling the plants/seeds a danger?

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

Hey B2,
It's a very cool plant, you just have to know the caveats. Handling seeds and the plants really doesn't pose a problem in normal circumstances. It's ingestion of significant amounts that leads to trouble, and the seeds are the most potent.

As long as no kids/pets munch the greenery or eat the seeds, it's pretty safe.

Really fun and easy to grow too! Even if you have to saw down a stump, lol.

Janet said...

Actually I think they left because there weren't anymore aphids. Strange weather we've had here and some say it's "helping" kill of some of the pests. So maybe they fled to more buggy pastures.

I'd love to buy a calendar, maybe you can "autograph" it for free :)

olivia said...

Those are gorgeous! They have them growing at the ornamental gardens here, and like FAR said, as soon as I saw 'em, I thought of you ... :D

olivia said...

Oh, and the calendar idea ROCKS! I'd love to be on your list ... :D

Shady Gardener said...

IVG, That is definitely the exotic looking plant and those are great photos!! Perhaps if you planted the sedum pots right in your front bed, allowing them to grow roots, later you could remove them when you replant them in their "permanent" home. Thanks for the monarda and nice visit. :-)

Shady Gardener said...

Not only monarda, but rue and All Those Seeds! :-) I'll be posting a photo soon.

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

Hey Olivia,
I guess I must be the castor guy for you folks, lol. You should give them a try, they're so much fun to watch grow. Don't worry, you'll be in line to get a calendar when it's done! :-)

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

Hey Shady,
Well you got to see it up close and personal, and believe it or not, something has been eating one of the leaves! I wonder what bug that could be that it wouldn't be downed by the toxic stuff?

I'm glad you enjoyed your brief visit and you will definitely love that monarda next year! And like I said, if it doesn't make it for some weird reason, just head up here next spring for some more! I've got to finish up Gail's seeds soon, but I was too much of a bum this weekend!

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