Dusti Bongé castor bean plate: pretty or poison?

I was particularly interested in this choice of artwork from the Dusti Bongé Art Foundation to share with See Great Art for its botanical theme. As a member of the Florida Native Plant Society, and firm believer that native plants are key to addressing Earth’s – and humanity’s – two great existential environmental calamities, climate change and the extinction crisis, I support conversations about native and exotic plant species.

Analysis of the artwork comes from Dusti Bongé Art Foundation Executive Director Ligia M. Römer.

This week’s choice from the series of “Plate Designs” by Dusti Bongé is most intriguing. Dusti decided to decorate this plate with the colorful seeds and leaves of the castor plant, also referred to as the Castor Bean or Ricinus Communis.

Intriguing, because it appears to be the only time she ever depicted this particular plant. Even more so because the castor bean is the embodiment of nature’s many contradictions. It has been both praised and reviled for its physical characteristics. Originally hailing from tropical east Africa, it is praised for its exotic, ornamental leaves, which can grow quite large, and which would add beauty and lushness to any garden.

And yet, this exotic species is nonetheless classified as an invasive weed, usually found along riverbeds and railroad tracks.

In addition to this, it also presents us with two completely opposing chemical qualities. On the one hand, there is the very beneficial castor oil that can be expelled from its seeds. Castor oil has served, and still does, as a trusted medicinal potion for various external topical uses. It was also once used as lamp oil. 

On the other hand, we get what remains in the protein structure of the seed, and this is one of your favorite little white powders known as ricin – a poison! 

In this design, she creates a small focal area with the seeds, with two layers of differently scaled patterns of the decorative castor leaves encircling the center. The first layer features larger dark green leaves while the second layer serves as the rim design with smaller leaves alternating in bright and dark green.

Dusti here is in effect serving us up a lovely plate of deadly fare. Note that she did make some other plate designs with leafy greens but they were all of the edible variety, such as several of her plates rimmed with lettuce leaves and various salad worthy veggies at the center.

Quite different from the lethal poison depicted on this plate.


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