Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Oleander Shrub

Visitors to the Gulf Shores, Alabama, area are sometimes overwhelmed by the beauty of oleander shrubs when they are in full bloom from early summer to fall. Landscapers love them because they are easy to establish, and property owners love them because they are easy to maintain and color a wide area red, white, or pink.
The oleander shrub may have originated in the Mediterranean area. It could have been picked up by South Pacific explorers then taken to the West Indies. Southward voyaging ships' captains were often asked to collect exotic seeds and cuttings for planting in overseas gardens. One such seafarer took home an oleander which was named South Sea Rose.

Pink and White Oleanders
Some people thought it was an olive bearing bush, and this may have come from the Latin name for olive tree, which is Olea. It was also imagined that oleanders came from a corruption of the Latin for rhododendron, and it has been confused in the past with that plant.

Oleander in Greek mythology means charm and romance. Leander once wooed a lovely Greek maiden. He was killed in a shipwreck and his love is said to have wandered the shores, called out to him -- Oh, Leander -- and she found him with a beautiful oleander in his hand. She kept the flower and it continued to grow.

This is just one story. Many people in the Deep South have enjoyed creating creating fanciful origins for oleander varieties.

There are Christian legends surrounding oleanders. It is thought by some to be the Rose of Jericho.

One other legend has Jean Lafitte killing all but one of a schooner's passengers. The man, named Ole Anderson, clutched a flowering plant in his hand. Lafitte made him a gardener and renamed the Norwegian, Olea Ander.

Whatever the true history, the oleander shrub is an Alabama Gulf Coast favorite. The bright colors -- reds, whites, pinks glisten in the sun and soften the harsh summer landscape.

The oleander shrub arrived in the sub-tropical climate of Galveston, Texas, around 1841. A prominent merchant, Joseph Osterman, gave them to his wife and sister-in-law, after he brought them back from Jamaica. The sister-in-law grew them easily and then gave some to the neighbors. They spread from there. A common pink variety with double flowers was named after her-- Mrs. Isadore Dyer.

After awhile the plants were found throughout Galveston and became one of its symbols, much like the azalea in Mobile, Alabama. The plant is hardy and can withstand salt spray, subtropical weather and alkaline soil.

After a 1900 hurricane, a Galveston organization called the Women's Health Protective Association (WHPA) wanted to beautify the island. Most of the island's plants had been destroyed by tidal surge and most of what remained was destroyed by dredge material used to raise land grade to make the island safer. The women chose the oleander as the main plant for the landscaping. By 1912, they had planted about 2,500 oleanders and 10,000 trees throughout the city.

The entire city eventually became one big oleander garden. In 1908, the Galveston Tribune named the oleander the symbol of Galveston and in 1910 another paper, the Galveston Daily News said that Galveston had become known worldwide as "Oleander City." In 1916 Galveston was named in an article as one of the most beautiful Southern cities.
As beautiful and versatile as the oleander shrub is, it does have a downside-- all parts of the plant are poisonous. In fact, it might be the most poisonous plant in the world. Ingesting or breathing in smoke from a burning oleander could cause diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, blurred vision and low blood pressure.

Almost 2000 people in Sri Lanka are poisoned by oleander each year-- the majority of those people intentionally poison themselves while attempting suicide.

I have never known anyone to be poisoned by oleanders, yet I have known dozens of people who have used it in their landscape for decades. That means with a little common sense, oleander poisoning can be avoided. Most people on the coast will not give up a plant as beautiful as the oleander because there aren't many plants that grow as easily in harsh conditions.

I am fairly certain that very few tourists are aware that the plants that help brighten their days at the beach might be the most poisonous in the world!

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