Every so often I come across a news story about legislation to make certain plants illegal (e.g., this story about legislation to ban Salvia divinorum from Suffolk County, NY). Oh, I totally understand prohibiting certain plants in places where there is concern about invasive species, pests, or diseases, but making a plant illegal because of its chemistry is, in my opinion, stupid.
One thing that bothers me about prohibiting plants is how misinformed people are about their properties. Another is how selective the bans are. For example, in some places it is illegal to buy the alcoholic beverage absinthe, which contains the chemical compound thujone. The wormwood plant from which the thujone is derived is illegal in some places. However, vermouth is another alcoholic beverage flavored with the same plant, yet it never came under fire, nor have the culinary herbs thyme and tarragon, which both contain thujone.
Another plant with a bad reputation is the castor bean plant, Ricinus communis. This plant has had economic importance pretty much since the dawn of civilized time, yet because it can be used to prepare a toxin (ricin), there are people who think it should be made illegal (and in some places it is). The honest truth is, many common garden plants are toxic or have pharmacological properties. If we were to prohibit every plant that could poison you, your spring garden would be devoid of daffodils, rhododendrons, wisteria, jasmine, lantana, azaleas, crocuses, hyacinths, foxglove... you get the picture... many plants.
Shown here is a castor bean seedling, which is desirable in my garden for a few reasons. It grows very quickly, reaching up to 15' in height by the end of summer if I take good care of it. The leaves are attractive and unusual. It contains alkaloids that deter most garden pests, plus if it is strategically planted, helps to protect the rest of my garden from pests. Could eating it kill me, my kids, or my pets? That's highly unlikely. It turns out it's difficult for people to poison themselves with castor beans even if they try. Wisteria, in contrast, is in no danger of being banned (that I know of), yet has been known to poison children.
Ricin & RCA Toxins | Natural Mosquito Repellents
Photo: The castor bean plant can be a beautiful, trouble-free addition to your garden. (Anne Helmenstine)