|Nerium oleander flower and leaves|
Nerium oleander / / is a shrub or small tree in the dogbane family Apocynaceae, toxic in all its parts. It is the only species currently classified in the genus Nerium. It is most commonly known as nerium or oleander, from its superficial resemblance to the unrelated olive Olea.[Note 1] It is so widely cultivated that no precise region of origin has been identified, though southwest Asia has been suggested. The ancient city of Volubilis in Morocco may have taken its name from the Berber name oualilt for the flower. Oleander is one of the most poisonous commonly grown garden plants.
The origins of the taxonomic title Nerium Oleander, first assigned by Linnaeus in 1753, are disputed. The genus name Nerium is the Latinized form of the Ancient Greek name for the plant Nerion (νἠριον), which is in turn derived from the Greek for water, 'neros' (νἠρος), because of the natural habitat of the Oleander along rivers and streams. Oleander is more problematic to source. Merriam-Webster believes it is a Medieval Latin corruption of either arodandrum, lorandrum (Late Latin), or more plausibly rhododendron (another Ancient Greek name for the plant), with the addition of Olea because of the superficial resemblance to the Olive tree. Another theory posited is that Oleander is the Latinized form of a Greek compound noun: 'Ollyo' (ολλύω), which means 'I kill', and the Greek noun for man, 'aner' or 'andros' (άνἠρ, άνδρος). This is because of the Oleander's toxicity to humans.
Oleander grows to 2–6 m (6.6–19.7 ft) tall, with erect stems that splay outward as they mature; first-year stems have a glaucous bloom, while mature stems have a grayish bark. The leaves are in pairs or whorls of three, thick and leathery, dark-green, narrow lanceolate, 5–21 cm (2.0–8.3 in) long and 1–3.5 cm (0.39–1.38 in) broad, and with an entire margin filled with minute reticulate venation web typical to Eudicots. Leaves are light green and very glossy when young, before maturing to a dull dark green/greenish gray. The flowers grow in clusters at the end of each branch; they are white, pink to red,[Note 2] 2.5–5 cm (0.98–1.97 in) diameter, with a deeply 5-lobed fringed corolla round the central corolla tube. They are often, but not always, sweet-scented.[Note 3] The fruit is a long narrow pair of follicles 5–23 cm (2.0–9.1 in) long, which splits open at maturity to release numerous downy seeds.
Habitat and range
N. oleander is either native or naturalized to a broad area from Mauritania, Morocco, and Portugal eastward through the Mediterranean region and the Sahara (where it is only found sporadically), to the Arabian peninsula, southern Asia, and as far east as Yunnan in southern parts of China. It typically occurs around stream beds in river valleys, where it can alternatively tolerate long seasons of drought and inundation from winter rains. Nerium oleander is planted in many subtropical and tropical areas of the world. On the East Coast of the US, it grows as far north as Virginia Beach, Virginia, while in California and Texas miles of oleander shrubs are planted on median strips. There are estimated to be 25 million Oleanders planted along highways and roadsides throughout the State of California. Because of its durability, Oleander was planted prolifically on Galveston Island in Texas after the disastrous Hurricane of 1900. They are so prolific that Galveston is known as the 'Oleander City'; an annual Oleander festival is hosted every spring.
Some invertebrates are known to be unaffected by oleander toxins, and feed on the plants. Caterpillars of the polka-dot wasp moth (Syntomeida epilais) feed specifically on oleanders and survive by eating only the pulp surrounding the leaf-veins, avoiding the fibers. Larvae of the common crow butterfly (Euploea core) also feed on oleanders, and they retain or modify toxins, making them unpalatable to would-be predators such as birds, but not to other invertebrates such as spiders and wasps.
The flowers require insect visits to set seed, and seem to be pollinated through a deception mechanism. The showy corolla acts as a potent advertisement to attract pollinators from a distance, but the flowers are nectarless and offer no reward to their visitors. They therefore receive very few visits, as typical of many rewardless flower species. Fears of honey contamination with toxic oleander nectar are therefore unsubstantiated.
Oleander is a vigorous grower in warm subtropical regions, where it is extensively used as an ornamental plant in parks, along roadsides and in private gardens. It is most commonly grown in its natural shrub form, but can be trained into a small tree with a single trunk. Hardy versions like white, red and pink oleander will tolerate occasional light frost down to −10 °C (14 °F)., though the leaves may be damaged. The toxicity of Oleander renders it deer-resistant and its large size makes for a good windbreak - as such it is frequently planted as a hedge along property lines and in agricultural settings. The plant is tolerant of poor soils, intense heat, salt spray, and sustained drought - although it will flower and grow more vigorously with regular water. Although it does not require pruning to thrive and bloom, Oleander can become unruly with age and older branches tend to become bare. For this reason gardeners are advised to prune mature shrubs in the autumn to shape and induce lush new growth and flowering for the following spring. Unless they wish to harvest the seeds, many gardeners choose to prune away the seedpods that form on spent flower clusters, which are a drain on energy.
Oleander flowers are showy, profuse, and often fragrant, which makes them very attractive in many contexts. Over 400 cultivars have been named, with several additional flower colors not found in wild plants having been selected, including yellow, peach and salmon. Many cultivars, like 'Hawaii' or 'Turner's Carnival', are multi-colored, with brilliant striped corollas. However, the solid whites, reds and a variety of pinks are the most common. Double flowered cultivars like 'Mrs Isadore Dyer', 'Mathilde Ferrier' or 'Mont Blanc' are enjoyed for their large, rose-like blooms and strong fragrance. There is also a variegated form, 'Variegata', featuring leaves striped in yellow and white.
In Mediterranean climates Oleanders can be expected to bloom from April through October, with the heaviest bloom usually occurring between May and June. Free-flowering varieties like 'Petite Salmon' or 'Mont Blanc' require no period of rest and can flower continuously throughout the year if the weather remains warm. Several dwarf cultivars have also been developed, which grow to only about 10 feet at maturity.
Beyond the traditional Mediterranean and Subtropical range of Oleander, the plant can also be cultivated in mild Oceanic climates with the appropriate precautions. It is grown without protection in southern England and can reach great sizes in London and to a lesser extent in Paris due to the Urban heat island effect. This is also the case with North American cities in the Pacific Northwest like Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. Plants may suffer damage or die back in such marginal climates during severe winter cold, but will rebound from the roots.
Drugs derived from N. oleander have been investigated as a treatment for cancer, unsuccessfully. According to the American Cancer Society, the trials conducted so far have produced no evidence of benefit, while they did cause adverse side effects. Nerium International markets anti-aging creams with extract (minus the toxins) from the Oleander as the active ingredient; its efficacy has not been scientifically verified.
Oleander has historically been considered a poisonous plant because some of its compounds may exhibit toxicity, especially to animals, when consumed in large amounts. Among these compounds are oleandrin and oleandrigenin, known as cardiac glycosides, which are known to have a narrow therapeutic index and can be toxic when ingested.
Toxicity studies of animals administered oleander extract concluded that rodents and birds were observed to be relatively insensitive to oleander cardiac glycosides. Other mammals, however, such as dogs and humans, are relatively sensitive to the effects of cardiac glycosides and the clinical manifestations of "glycoside intoxication".
However, despite the common "poisonous" designation of this plant, very few toxic events in humans have been reported. According to the Toxic Exposure Surveillance System, in 2002, 847 human exposures to oleander were reported to poison centers in the United States. Despite this exposure level, from 1985 through 2005, only three deaths were reported. One cited death was apparently due to the ingestion of oleander leaves by a diabetic man. His blood indicated a total blood concentration of cardiac glycosides of about 20 μg/l, which is well above the reported fatal level. Another study reported on the death of a woman who self-administered "an undefined oleander extract" both orally and rectally and her oleandrin tissue levels were 10 to 39 μg/g, which were in the high range of reported levels at autopsy. In 2000, the death of two toddlers in El Segundo was attributed to eating oleander.
In contrast to consumption of these undefined oleander-derived materials, no toxicity or deaths were reported from topical administration or contact with N. oleander or specific products derived from them. In reviewing oleander toxicity, Lanford and Boor concluded that, except for children who might be at greater risk, "the human mortality associated with oleander ingestion is generally very low, even in cases of moderate intentional consumption (suicide attempts)".
Toxicity studies conducted in dogs and rodents administered oleander extracts by intramuscular injection indicated that, on an equivalent weight basis, doses of an oleander extract with glycosides 10 times those likely to be administered therapeutically to humans are still safe and without any "severe toxicity observed".
Effects of poisoning
Ingestion of this plant can affect the gastrointestinal system, the heart, and the central nervous system. The gastrointestinal effects can consist of nausea and vomiting, excess salivation, abdominal pain, diarrhea that may contain blood, and especially in horses, colic. Cardiac reactions consist of irregular heart rate, sometimes characterized by a racing heart at first that then slows to below normal further along in the reaction. Extremities may become pale and cold due to poor or irregular circulation. The effect on the central nervous system may show itself in symptoms such as drowsiness, tremors or shaking of the muscles, seizures, collapse, and even coma that can lead to death.
Poisoning and reactions to oleander plants are evident quickly, requiring immediate medical care in suspected or known poisonings of both humans and animals. Induced vomiting and gastric lavage are protective measures to reduce absorption of the toxic compounds. Charcoal may also be administered to help adsorb any remaining toxins. Further medical attention may be required depending on the severity of the poisoning and symptoms. Temporary cardiac pacing will be required in many cases (usually for a few days) until the toxin is excreted.
Digoxin immune fab is the best way to cure an oleander poisoning if inducing vomiting has no or minimal success, although it is usually used only for life-threatening conditions due to side effects.
Drying of plant materials does not eliminate the toxins. It is also hazardous for animals such as sheep, horses, cattle, and other grazing animals, with as little as 100 g being enough to kill an adult horse. Plant clippings are especially dangerous to horses, as they are sweet. In July 2009, several horses were poisoned in this manner from the leaves of the plant. Symptoms of a poisoned horse include severe diarrhea and abnormal heartbeat. There is a wide range of toxins and secondary compounds within oleander, and care should be taken around this plant due to its toxic nature. Different names for oleander are used around the world in different locations, so, when encountering a plant with this appearance, regardless of the name used for it, one should exercise great care and caution to avoid ingestion of any part of the plant, including its sap and dried leaves or twigs. The dried or fresh branches should not be used for spearing food, for preparing a cooking fire, or as a food skewer. Many of the oleander relatives, such as the desert rose (Adenium obesum) found in East Africa, have similar leaves and flowers and are equally toxic.
The alleged toxicity of the plant makes it the center of an urban legend documented on several continents and over more than a century. Often told as a true and local event, typically an entire family, or in other tellings a group of scouts, succumbs after consuming hot dogs or other food roasted over a campfire using oleander sticks. Some variants tell of this happening to Napoleon's or Alexander the Great's soldiers.
An ancient account mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History. described a region in Pontus where the honey was poisoned from bees having pollinated oleander flowers. This is a myth, since Oleander flowers are nectarless and therefore do not transmit any toxins.
Nerium Oleander has a history of cultivation going back millennia, especially amongst the great ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean Basin. Some scholars believe it to be the rhodon (rose), also called the 'Rose of Jericho', mentioned in the Bible (Ecclesiastes XXIV, 13) dating back to between 450 and 180 BC. This is because no form of the traditional rose occurs in the wild in Palestine, but Oleander does.
The ancient Greeks had several names for the plant, including rhododaphne, nerion, rhododendron and rhodon. Pliny confirmed that the Romans had no Latin word for the plant, but used the Greek terms instead.
In his book Enquiries into Plants of circa 300 BC, Theophrastus described (among plants that affect the mind) a shrub he called onotheras, which modern editors render oleander; "the root of onotheras [oleander] administered in wine", he alleges, "makes the temper gentler and more cheerful".
The plant has a leaf like that of the almond, but smaller, and the flower is red like a rose. The plant itself (which loves hilly country) forms a large bush; the root is red and large, and, if this is dried, it gives off a fragrance like wine.
In another mention, of "wild bay" (Daphne agria), Theophrastus appears to intend the same shrub.
Oleander was a very popular ornamental shrub in Roman peristyle gardens; it is one of the flora most frequently depicted on murals in Pompeii and elsewhere in Italy. These murals include the famous garden scene from the House of Livia at Prima Porta outside Rome, and those from the House of the Wedding of Alexander and the Marine Venus in Pompeii.
Carbonized fragments of Oleander wood have been identified at the Villa Poppaea in Oplontis, likewise buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. They were found to have been planted in a decorative arrangement with lemon trees alongside the villa's swimming pool.
A bacterial disease known as Oleander Leaf Scorch has become an extremely serious threat to the shrub since it was first noticed in Palm Springs in 1992. The disease has since decimated hundreds of thousands of shrubs mainly in Southern California, but also on a smaller scale in Arizona, Nevada and Texas. The culprit is a bacterium called Xylella fastidiosa, which is spread via insects (the Glassy-winged sharpshooter primarily) who feed on the tissue of oleanders and spread the bacteria. This inhibits the circulation of water in the tissue of the plant, causing individual branches to die until the entire plant is consumed.
Symptoms of Leaf Scorch infection can take several years to manifest themselves but it becomes evident when parts of otherwise healthy Oleanders begin to yellow and turn necrotic. Die-back may cease during winter dormancy, but the disease flares up in summer heat when the plant is actively growing. As such it can be difficult to identify at first because gardeners may mistake the symptoms for those of drought stress or nutrient deficiency. Pruning out affected parts can slow the progression of the disease but not eliminate it. This malaise can continue for several years until the plant completely dies - there is no known cure. The best method for preventing further spread of the disease is to prune infected Oleanders to the ground immediately after the infection is noticed.
In art and culture
- Janet Fitch's 1999 novel White Oleander is centered around a young Southern California girl's experiences growing up in foster care after her mother is imprisoned for poisoning an ex-boyfriend with the plant. The book was adapted into a popular 2002 film starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Alison Lohman.
- The rock band Oleander took its name from the plant because it lines miles of highways in the band's native Sacramento.
Oleander has formed the subject matter of paintings by famous artists including:
- Gustav Klimt, who painted "Two Girls with an Oleander" between 1890-92.
- Vincent Van Gogh painted his famous "Oleanders" in Arles in 1888. Van Gogh found the flowers "joyous" and "life-affirming" because of their inexhaustible blooms and vigour.
- Anglo-Dutch artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema incorporated Oleanders into his classically-inspired paintings, including "An Oleander" (1882), "Courtship", "Under the Roof of Blue Ionian Weather" and "A Roman Flower Market" (1868).
- "The Rehearsal of the Flute Player and the Wife of Diomedes in the Atrium of Prince Napoleon's Pompeian House in Paris" (1861) by Gustave Boulanger features potted Oleanders in a Roman period scene.
This morning Thea saw to her delight that the two oleander trees, one white and one red, had been brought up from their winter quarters in the cellar. There is hardly a German family in the most arid parts of Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, but has its oleander trees. However loutish the American-born sons of the family may be, there was never one who refused to give his muscle to the back-breaking task of getting those tubbed trees down into the cellar in the fall and up into the sunlight in the spring. They may strive to avert the day, but they grapple with the tub at last.
It is the provincial flower of Sindh province.
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