In the fairy tale story of Jack and the beanstalk, the stalk Jack
climbed may very well have been a castor bean! The castor bean plant
grows 4, 5, 6 and even 7 feet tall during the course of a summer. It
possesses large leaves, a heavy stalk and comes in a variety of
colors, including dark green, a deep red and an orange-red bronze
While some of the younger generations may not know about
castor oil, many old-timers can tell you that as kids their mothers
gave them a spoonful to cure what ailed them. The oil was most
commonly used as a laxative to cure a stomachache and came from the
The fact is, the castor bean dates back to ancient days and has
been found in such exotic locations as the tombs of ancient Egypt.
In the garden, the castor bean plant, scientifically named
Ricinus, can add height and interest to your landscape. These are
great plants to use against the bare side of a house to help dress
up a drab exterior wall. They are also great to plant in front of
open windows to allow for added privacy.
Having the plants outside a bedroom window, for example, will
allow for open windows and blinds in the late summer when nights
start to cool. In addition, the rustle of the extra-large leaves in
a gentle breeze can be very relaxing as one prepares for sleep.
The plants are believed to have originated in the tropical
climates of east Africa, but history shows they have shown up in
several other places, such as Egypt and China.
Locally, the plants can be grown from seed as an annual and will
thrive in the warm summer days of Logan County. The seeds are not
readily available in this area but can be found in many of the
popular garden seed catalogs. The nice thing is, once you buy the
first seeds, you need never buy again.
The plant produces a cluster of seed pods late in the growing
season. The pods can be harvested and the seed saved for future
plantings. To harvest the seed, the best method may be to cut the
entire cluster off the stalk, drop it into a paper bag and store it
for the winter in a cool but not freezing location.
Each pod will have three segments. When you're ready to plant,
pop the pod apart, then break open each segment to find the
bean-shaped seed inside. If you want to add drama to the yard
instantly, start the seeds indoors under a grow light, and then
transplant the young plants into your garden.
Another great advantage for the treelike plant is that it will
provide shade for less heat-tolerant plants such as impatiens. Set
your castor plants 2 to 3 feet apart, then fill in with flowering
annuals that like shade or partial sun, and watch your garden go
from pretty to pretty remarkable!
You should also be aware that the actual castor bean seed is
toxic to animals, so if you have pets that run out in your yard or
just a favorite squirrel that you wish no harm, be sure not to let
the pods fall on the ground. On the other hand, they are a quick
cure for killing underground varmints such as moles. Dig a hole in
their "run," drop in a half-dozen seeds, and the bean will take care
of the rest.
One of the biggest challenges the gardener will have with the
castor bean plant is getting rid of it in the fall. The thick stalks
of the plant make it difficult to remove. The best method is to chop
the plant off about a foot above the soil level, then tie a rope
around the stump and pull it out with your garden tractor. Loosening
the soil around the stump with a pitchfork will make this task a
Another lovable giant in the garden is the elephant ear.
Colocasia by their scientific name, these large-leafed plants are
typically considered to be a tropical plant that won't grow
successfully in the more northern regions. However, the fact is, you
can grow elephant ears in Logan County … if you're willing to do the
In tropical areas where the air temperature never reaches below
45 degrees, elephant ears are considered a perennial, in that the
tuber can be left in the ground during the dormant period or over
winter. In this region, where temperatures drop to below freezing,
the elephant ear needs to be treated as an annual, with the tuber
being dug up in the fall and set out again in the spring.
One drawback of the elephant ear is that it is slow to come out
of the ground once it is planted. Experts indicate that it can take
up to three weeks for the first green growth to appear above ground.
However, if you want to put pizazz in the garden early in the
year, start the tubers in containers in a warm area. Setting a tuber
in late March should bring you to a young plant by mid-April.
Allowing the plant to grow in the container for a couple of weeks,
or more if you have growing room, will allow the gardener to get
instant gratification from the elephant ear when planted in the
garden in late April or early May.
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When you take the plant to the garden, set it in a sunny to
partially shaded area and allow 3 to 5 feet around it for growth
throughout the summer.
When fall comes, dig up the tuber. In many cases you will find
that there are now multiples where there was once only one. Tubers
can be separated, allowing for more plants next year, or plants to
give to family or friends.
Elephant ears also come in colors. The typical plant is a rich
green, but there are also varieties such as Black Magic, with a deep
purple hue. Mixing the two will bring great drama to your landscape
and also provide a more appealing backdrop for planting of
low-growing blooming plants in front of them. There are also other
colors available, such as variegated pinks and reds and a stunning
variety called Mojito, which is a variegated bright and dark green
with a rich blue-purple.
Finally, not all giants are green. Many enjoy seeing a flowering
plant that will stand up and smack them in the face with their
color, interest and uniqueness. If that is what you're looking for
in your garden, then consider the Datura and Brugmansia. Commonly
known as angel's trumpets, these two plants produce similar flowers
but grow in different ways.
The Datura angel's trumpet is a lower growing, bush-type plant
that will produce large, trumpet-shaped flowers. These plants grow 3
to 5 feet wide and equally as tall, making an excellent backdrop for
The Brugmansia is a more dramatic plant that grows in a treelike
formation, gathering height and foliage at the top and showing wood
stem below. What is most appealing, though, is the hundreds of
trumpets that bloom out of the foliage, turning their heads downward
to the point where they more resemble large bells than trumpets.
Datura can be planted in the spring and will produce flowers
throughout the summer and into late fall. They enjoy full sun to
partial shade, like moist feet early in the growing season, but are
also drought-tolerant in late summer.
These are a seed-producing plant. Seeds can be harvested in the
fall and stored for planting the next spring. Gardeners should use
caution with these seeds because, just as the castor bean, they are
toxic if consumed.
In the fall, there is no need to dig up the Datura. Depending on
the winter season, the plant stands a good possibility of returning
in the spring on its own, but if it doesn't, it can be replaced by
planting the seeds saved at harvest.
The Brugmansia variety can be grown in the garden or in pots.
When using a pot, be sure to choose one that is large enough to
support root growth so you will get a large plant with plenty of
flowers. It is suggested that the pot be a 5- to 7-gallon size, or
approximately 14 inches wide and 12 inches deep. The bigger the pot,
the bigger the plant will grow, so if you want something bigger, go
These plants love water and require large amounts, especially if
grown in pots. At the same time, they don't particularly like wet
feet, so be sure you have a pot that drains well, or that you plant
them in a well-draining location in the garden.
As a caution, insects love Brugmansia and may attract some
unwanted pests in the garden. The worst of these could be the spider
mite. Spider mites are nearly invisible to the naked eye but can be
seen with a high-powered magnifying glass. In most cases you will
know they are present when you see their plastic-like "webs"
covering flowers and foliage. By the time this happens, it is pretty
much too late to do anything that will save the plant. The mites in
their web literally suck the life from the plants, usually turning
them an ugly brown in the process.
If you see the mites early, you can try commercial miticides
available at most garden stores. Once you have the mite webs, the
best thing to do to protect the balance of your garden is to remove
As you garden this summer, don't be afraid to bring in a lovable
giant or two. The addition of any of these four large growing plants
will put the sizzle on the steak, so to speak, and take your garden
from pretty to pretty terrific.
[By NILA SMITH]