10 Degrees Cooler
Toxic Encounter With Nature
By Joann Deutch
Jul 31, 2012 - 10:51:54 AM

LAUREL CANYONI recently had a close encounter with a local plant which proved to be quite a surprise. I started to go into anaphylactic shock within 30 minutes of messing with this plant. I was trying to learn about the Dodder, or Ahiko, plant. It looks like a mop of dried red-orange hair laying on top of other plants. It is all over the hillside right now. I thought it might have the ability to strangle whatever plant it covered. As it turns out, Dodder is a parasitic plant that the Tongva use as medicine to relieve asthma and nosebleeds. I wasn’t paying attention to what the Dodder plant had wrapped itself around.  That turned out to be a castor plant.  It wasn’t until my lips started to tingle that I made the proper association. I went straight home and thoroughly washed my hands of the sticky plant residue, but apparently that was not enough. I wound up sleeping it off in the ER.  Thankfully, I didn’t have a cut on my hands, or who knows what might have happened. 

Dodder plant creeping up a host tree

I had always wondered exactly which part of which plant was toxic: the leaves, the plant, the stalk?  When the experts say “everything”, you better believe it. Racin is the poison from a castor plant. It has no known antidote, and death by racin apparently is a tough and disgusting ordeal.  It’s now clear to me why the plants are all over the hillsides, and no animal is eating the seeds. The castor plant is native to India, and was brought here as a decorative garden plant.


It seems preposterous. We all know Castor Oil was commonly used in the old days for all kinds of medicinal purposes. The oil comes from the seeds, but apparently harvesting the plant is a tricky business ”“ you can die. The dried bean, when heated to a mere 115 degrees, is pressed to extract the oil. Something that is so dangerous and can be so easily rendered useable (although with caution) is difficult to comprehend. The racin chemical component remains, but somehow it’s a less toxic concoction.


Ricin is actually considered a biological weapon. In the “90s the FBI thought it was introduced into the ventilation of a Las Vegas hotel. Heard of Castrol? While that’s a name brand, it’s a motor oil with castor oil in it. The castor oil is an additive which has a high burn temperature and acts as a heavy lubricant for motorcycle engines.


My curiosity about medicinal plants stems from an encounter with a witch. She prepared an oil and an infusion for me. I was okay with the skin oil, but the infusion which I was supposed to drink was a little more dicey. I admit, I threw it away. I just couldn’t do it.


Because we live in the shadow of the local Tongva people and we see the same plants they saw, I am curious about how they managed to figure out which plants could be used for medicines. How did they figure out that if you boiled and inhaled the steam from the Dodder plant you could treat asthma? 


I am humbled by their science and daring. I want to think I can figure this out. Would you be my guinea pig?

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