Oleander flowers evoke those white hot summer days when air is void of moisture, rain is just a memory, and the threat of canyon fires is a breath of wind away. Native to the Mediterranean, oleander crossed the ocean by way of explorers and plant enthusiasts who collected seeds and cuttings. It arrived in the British West Indies and went on to America where it took root in Galveston, Texas. It came to be known as the “Sea Rose” since sea spray, wind, and heat did not threaten this hearty evergreen shrub or disturb its clusters of pink, white or salmon colored flowers.
Drought tolerant, you can plant them, forget them, and watch them thrive, oleanders are not fussy. Rapid growers, they can sprout up one to two feet in a year. They can be pruned into a tree form, or left to grow free creating a hedge for privacy.
They are perfect for beautifying highways where they repel car fumes and pollution and do it while looking fresh and pretty. While driving north we saw banks of oleander thriving all along route 101 through Santa Barbara and beyond where the sun is strong and drought curses the parched yellow hills. How can such a charming flower survive in this?
But don’t be fooled by its looks. It’s not only attractive, it is poisonous too. Urban myths abound about oleander, but they are simply that. One quite popular one, or a variation of it, involves a troop of boy scouts who used oleander branches as roasting sticks for their hot dogs and subsequently die from the poison leaching into their food. I guess no one had a plant identification badge. While it is not recommended to use the branches, it is unlikely you would die from this. But some caution should be taken when handling this plant as skin irritations can occur. Severe reactions can also be caused by burning it. Its toxins are mainly in the sap so gloves might be a good idea while pruning. Leaves and flowers should not be chewed though the taste is said to be intolerably bitter.
You might be tempted to cut a few clusters of oleander to brighten your home but it’s best to leave these blooms outside. I remember my young son grabbing a handful of the pink flowers on his way home from school to present as a little bouquet to me. Fortunately, the poisonous petals did not harm him. The little arrangement sat pleasantly on the table keeping its threat to itself and looking quite innocent.
The late summer heat of California will always remind me of oleander. When the roses are fading and the grass is browning, oleander is thriving in colorful bursts. Wind and 100 degree days are no match for this shrub. It stretches out to the sun unthreatened by its heat and bravely absorbs all that nature imparts.