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It is paradoxical that the same plant is the source of one of the deadliest poisons on Earth and one of the most versatile home remedies. The castor bean (Ricinus communis) dates back to antiquity. The ancient Egyptians burned the oil in their lamps, rubbed it on their skin and took it as a laxative.

The seeds are the source of castor oil, as well as ricin, one of the most toxic chemicals known to man. This compound is derived from the solids left after the oil has been extracted from the bean. It stops protein synthesis and kills cells quickly. That is why it is being investigated as a possible cancer treatment. Ricin is not carried in oil, explaining how castor oil has been used medicinally (and safely) for so many thousands of years.

Castor oil contains ricinoleic acid, which triggers a purgative or flushing action in the digestive tract. This is why a spoonful of castor oil has long been used as a laxative.

People with delicate digestive systems might want to give it a wide berth, though, as it can cause cramping and pain along with diarrhea.

Castor oil also is used topically. Grandmothers frequently created a castor-oil “pack” for sore muscles or inflamed joints. They would soak several layers of flannel in four tablespoons of castor oil and then place the flannel over the part of the body that hurts. The flannel can be covered with plastic wrap, and a hot-water bottle or low-heat pad can be used to warm the area gently for half an hour.

Here are some stories from readers: “I used castor-oil packs with a heating pad after I had shoulder surgery a few years back. It worked really well at easing the pain.”

Castor oil also is a popular way to prevent or treat bruises: “Whenever my children hurt themselves, the first thing I reached for was the castor oil. My mother-in-law’s uncle was a boxer, and castor oil was what they used after a boxing match to prevent hematomas and bruising. It works like a charm. It has been passed down as a remedy in my family for many years.”

Another reader used castor oil for a similar purpose, though the sport was different: “I used castor oil in lacrosse for years. I would put on castor oil and cover it with plastic wrap. The bruise would usually be gone the next day. That frustrated a lot of players because they would swear that they hit you, and then they wouldn’t see the evidence.”

Castor oil also has been used against warts: “I had warts on my hands when I was younger. The doctor tried burning and freezing them, but nothing worked as well as my mother’s remedy of applying castor oil to the wart and covering it with a bandage. This got rid of the warts completely.”

Some people also find that castor oil helps sore joints: “I have used castor oil (no felt or heating pad) on my aching spots. It helps my arthritis a little (and every little bit helps). My knees started to bother me, and it made them feel great in one day.”

Another reader found a new variant on this old remedy: “I have used a lotion with a castor-oil base for muscle pains. It is a commercial product called Castiva that comes in warming or cooling varieties. It is wonderful and doesn’t smell like castor oil.”

When you consider the broad range of uses for castor oil, it seems like a remedy that everyone should have on hand.

In their column, Joe and Teresa Graedon answer letters from readers. Write to them via their website, www.peoplespharmacy.com. Their latest book is “Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them.”