A Common Wild Plant – A Common Deadly Poison

Castor bean plants are extremely common in our wildlands. They line our mountain trails, some of our roadways, and are even found in household landscaping. They are a beautiful, lush and colorful plant. They are also the source of one of the deadliest poisons – ricin – often used in murders and assassinations.

Castor bean plants, although not native, are plentiful in our foothills. They’re easily picked out from surrounding brush because of their gorgeous color palette. Their big broad leaves are a deep green, highlighted with brilliant reds and purples. The plants get big, commonly three to six feet tall, but can get tree-like, growing up to 15 feet tall. The beans of the castor bean plant are pretty, too, a variegated brown and cream color, which grow inside bright red seedpods.

The plant was introduced from Asia and Africa as an ornamental and a cultivated crop. Castor oil has an incredible amount of uses, both industrial and for health and beauty. The oil is often used as a lubricant, particularly as an alternative to petroleum lubricants (ever hear of the brand name Castrol Oil?). It was the oil of choice in early aviation industries. The plastics industry uses it as a coating. It’s used in food products (chocolate for instance) and in hair and skin products as a moisturizer. In the garden it’s a pest repellant. Traditional medicines dating back thousands of years have used it as a laxative. If you remember “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain, castor oil was one of the many health fad remedies foisted on Tom Sawyer by his Aunt Polly.

But these are all instances where the oil from the castor bean has been heated during the extraction process to the point where the ricin contained in the bean is neutralized. Without the heating process the beans naturally contain ricin and are deadly. Just a couple of beans, chewed and swallowed, can kill a person, and children are particularly vulnerable. Sadly, animals are sometimes victims from ingesting the seeds while eating the plant.

But it’s when the poisonous ricin is extracted from the bean in a powder form that murder by poisoning comes into play. Inhalation of the powder will cause the lungs to fill with fluid leading to respiratory failure. Ingestion of ricin causes bloody vomiting and diarrhea, ending in liver and kidney failure. There is no antidote.

Ricin has been used in numerous homegrown murders and suicides, and incidents of domestic terrorism. It has been explored as a weapon by several countries, including the U.S. Here are a few of those incidents that may be familiar.

Perhaps the most famous case of ricin poisoning is a spy novel-style assassination in 1978. A Bulgarian dissident, Georgi Markov, was living in London. While waiting for a bus, an agent from the Bulgarian Secret Service came up behind him and poked him in the leg with an umbrella. The umbrella had been modified, with the help of the Russian KBG, to inject under Markov’s skin a tiny pellet containing ricin. The agent hurried away and Markov thought little of the relatively painless incident, but within four days he was dead.

In 2003 and 2004, ricin-laced letters were sent to the White House and other governmental agencies, apparently by a disgruntled trucker. In 2013, ricin-bearing letters were sent to President Obama and to President Trump in 2018.

On the local level, just a few years ago, a La Crescenta man was popped for trying to buy ricin to kill his wife. He bought it online, not realizing that he was actually purchasing it from an FBI agent. He paid $350 for a packet of ricin poison, and the FBI delivered a pack of inert powder. Once it was delivered and he had opened it, they arrested him. He pleaded guilty to a biological weapons charge and was sentenced to 3½ years.

He could have avoided all that by just taking a hike in our local hills and picking a few castor beans.

Amazing. We are literally surrounded by a deadly poison.

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical
Society of the Crescenta Valley
and loves local history.
Reach him at