The Castor Bean plant grows quickly and easily in Florida, has been grown commercially here in the past, and is used in Brazil to make biodiesel fuel. Sounds great, sign us all up, the answer for what to do with all that land cleared due to citrus canker -- well, maybe not. The plant is invasive and poisonous, one of its products being ricin. Nonetheless, 90 years ago castor cultivation in Florida was a matter of national concern.
The time was 1917, and the United States had joined World War One. One of the inovations of the Great War was the use of airplanes for military purposes, and castor oil was valued as an aircraft lubricant. Soon the plant was under cultivation in Florida, the southwestern states, and California, with growers guaranteed a price of $3 a bushel. Problems with labor, pests, and transportation lowered yields and raised prices demanded by growers. Production was far below government estimates, and the War Department turned to foreign sources of the oil. American petroleum companies promoted mineral and other oils for use in aircraft.
Soon after fields of castor were planted in Florida, armyworms began marching and munching their way through the foliage. State plant inspectors waged battle armed with dust sprayers full of powdered arsenate of lead, quickly saving that year's crop. The State Plant Board reported:
"In dealing with the emergency created by this outbreak of the army worm the Plant Board was called upon to make rather heavy expenditures. A total of $1,946.85 was expended by the Board, covering traveling expenses of inspectors, telegrams, emergency circulars, dusting machines, poison, etc. The large quantity of castor beans saved from destruction, and therefore made available for the use of the Government, more than justified the expenditure."
The war ended before all problems with massive domestic production of castor oil were resolved. Peacetime demand for the oil much less, and farmers turned to other crops. Castor bean plants are still found along roadside ditches and fields throughout south Florida, where they are considered weeds.
Photograph on page 304 of the 1918 edition of The Overland Monthly: "Human and Physical Elements in a Picturesque and Successful Castor Bean Campaign in Florida. --Herman B. Walker of Miami, and the illuminated Ford in Which He Several times Traversed the East Coast, Calling upon the Farmers to Plant War Beans."
"Castor Beans Grown in Titusville Supplied Oil for World War I Planes." Indian River Journal Volume VI, Number 1 (Spring/Summer 2007), pp. 2-3.
The Quarterly Bulletin of the State Plant Board of Florida, Volume I, 1916-1917. Gainesville: State Plant Board of Florida.
1918 Year Book of the Oil, Paint and Drug Reporter. New York: Oil, Paint and Drug Reporter, 1919.