It has very large green leaves, scattered throughout the plant, with a rib system that resembles the fingers of the human hand. That is how it got the name “Palma Christi”.
Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant... (Jonah 4:6)
The Hebrew word gigayon, translated in the Greek Septuagint as kolokynthe and into the Latin Vulgate as hedera, was translated in the Spanish versions as “pumpkin plant” or “gourd”. However, pumpkins are of American origin and did not exist in the Fertile Crescent of the ancient Near East. Hence, the Talmud and Jewish scribes interpret this Hebrew term as a type of castor bean plant (Ricinus communis), which was popularly given a range of names such as the “Palma Christi”, “the devil’s fig tree” or “infernal fig tree” among many others. It only appears in this text in Jonah (4:6-10), where it refers to a plant that grew miraculously, no one having planted it, and could provide shade in hot, arid environments.
[photo_footer]Photo: Antonio Cruz.
These features seem to coincide with those of the Ricinus communis, a bush belonging to the Euphorbiaceae family, which is abundant in Israel and can grow to a height of several metres in warm climates.
It has very large green leaves, scattered throughout the plant, with a rib system that resembles the fingers of the human hand. That is how it got the name “Palma Christi”, by which it is known in some places. At times the veins of the leaves, the stalks and even stems acquire a purplish colour which, together with the toxicity of its seeds, has earned it its infernal connotations.
The male and female flowers are distributed in inflorescences and can blossom throughout the year. The fruit is globular and made up of three lobes and covered with prickles. Each of the lobes produces a large purple coloured seed, with a smooth surface and containing a toxin known as ricin. When these seeds are dried their prickly covering contracts until it explodes, scattering the contents to a distance of up to ten metres. This is the dissemination mechanism of the plant.
It is believed to have originated in the horn of Africa (Abyssinia) but has spread throughout all the warm regions of the planet. The ricin contained in the seeds is extremely poisonous, causing gastroenteritis, damage to the kidneys and liver and finally death.
Nevertheless, the castor oil obtained from the plant, by crushing the seeds and heating them for long enough to destroy the ricin, is one of the most effective purging substances that exist. Now it is also used to make paint, lubricants and brake fluid.
The 16th century theologian Leonard Wright, commenting on the words of the psalmist in psalm 55 v 21: His talk is smooth as butter, yet war is in his heart; his words are more soothing than oil, yet they are drawn swords, wrote the following reflection:
A feigned friend is much like a crocodile who, when he smiles, poisons; and when he weepeth, devoureth; or the hyaena, having the voice of a man and the mind of a wolf, speaking like a friend and devouring like a fiend; or the flattering sirens that sweetly sing the sailor's wreck; or the fowler's pipe that pleasantly playeth the bird's death; or the bee, who carrieth honey in her mouth and a sting in her tail; or the box tree, whose leaves are always green, but the seeds poison. So his countenance is friendly and his words pleasant, but his intent dangerous, and his deeds unwholesome. 
1. Spurgeon, C. H. The Treasury of David.
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