Plant Collector: Nerium oleander

Oleanders - internationally popular for harsh growing conditions

Oleanders – internationally popular for harsh growing conditions

I photographed this oleander in Canberra which rather gives lie to the notion that these are sub tropical plants. Oleanders are so widespread internationally that their original habitat has not been isolated though it falls somewhere in the band stretching from Southern Europe and North Africa through to Central Asia. Some of these areas can get cold winters but what they all share is hot, dry summers. Years ago we saw oleanders used as street trees near the beachside motor camp in Gisborne. Not having been back there for some years, I don’t know if they are still there but similar conditions will apply in the drier, coastal areas of mid to north New Zealand. These plants are tolerant of both drought and salt spray.

Oleanders are evergreen and form large shrubs to small trees, several metres high. They generally grow with multiple stems and can be cut back hard without turning a hair though it may impact flowering the following season. Their tolerance for poor soils, hard conditions and drought means they can be grown in situations where most plants will struggle but it is their ability to flower freely for months on end that makes them a hugely popular plant of choice for many, despite lacking much natural form and elegance. Flowers are whites, pinks and reds, both doubles and singles.

Oleanders are renowned for being poisonous, but so are many plants including daphne. Just don’t ever use it in tisanes, herbal preparations, or anything else that may see you ingesting it. Never use them as kebab sticks. Yes somebody did, with unfortunate results. However, oleander poisoning incidents are generally deliberate rather than accidental. Mind the sap, too when pruning. It can cause skin irritation.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.