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Nerium oleander, oleander

Summary

Undoubtedly a candidate for most poisonous plant in the garden but also a contender for most beautiful.

Family

Apocynaceae

Meaning of the Name

Nerium
Believed to come from the Greek ‘nerion’ which is, itself, believed to be based on ‘neros’, ‘wet’ or ‘fresh’.
 
oleander
Possibly a combination of the Latin ‘olea’, ‘olive’ and ‘rodandrum’, ‘rhododendron’ meaning the plant looks somewhat similar to a cross between these two.

Common Names and Synonyms

oleander, rose bay, common oleander, rose laurel

'Poisonous Plants 1-2-1' video

This short video summarising the story of the two oleanders is just one of a series.

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

Nerium oleander, oleander

Nerium oleander, oleander

It contains the principal cardiac glycosides oleandrin, which can be used instead of digitalis, and neriine, as well as folinerin and digitoxigenin.

Causes abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhoea, visual disturbances, rapid pulse and heart malfunction causing death. The sap if in contact with the skin can cause blistering, irritation and soreness.

John Gerard says that, applied externally it can improve the digestion but taken internally it is deadly to men and most kinds of beasts. Cattle, sheep and goats can be killed by drinking water into which leaves of oleander have fallen.

The poisons are said to survive burning so cooking over a fire of oleander wood is said to cause the poison to transfer via the smoke to meat being cooked.

Incidents

During the Peninsular Wars some of Wellington's soldiers are alleged to have died after eating meat cooked on skewers made from the wood. This same claim is made about other groups of soldiers during other wars so is impossible to verify. This alleged ability of oleander skewers continues to be ascribed to various groups, often boy scouts out camping, to this day. This in spite of the fact that oleander does not produce woody stems of the size or strength to be used as skewers. And, there has been one piece of research that found insufficient transfer of oleandrin from the skewer to the meat to produce a fatal barbecue.

Soldiers sleeping on oleander branches were reported to have died according to the Gardener's Chronicle in 1880 though this may have been a sort of 'Chinese whispers' corruption of the skewer story.

In 1989, the Western Journal of Medicine reported the case of an 83 year old woman who attempted suicide by drinking a tea made of an infusion of Oleander leaves. She suffered severe bradycardia with a pulse rate of 40 and was treated with atropine to counteract this. There are other reports in the literature of failed suicide attempts.

There are numerous reports of animal poisoning featuring a wide range of animals including sheep, cattle, horses, canaries, budgerigars, donkeys, a sloth and a bear. The following are two of the more recent examples.

In 2005, the Los Angeles Daily News reported the case of Fudgie, a dwarf cow beloved of the primary school students in its area. Fudgie ate some oleander branches and suffered cardiac arrest. It was fortunate that the vet called in knew a senior toxicologist because between them they restarted Fudgie's heart twelve times over the week that it took for the cow to recover. The vet apparently kicked Fudgie in the chest to restart his heart.

In August 2009, 23 horses at Rockridge Farm in Rancho Santa Fe near San Diego were reported to have been poisoned after an intruder broke into the stables during the night and fed them oleander leaves. When staff opened the barn at 6 am they found one horse already seriously ill and the others showing the first signs of poisoning.

The workers say they found oleander leaves in the stalls as well as remains of carrots and apples thought to have been used to disguise the bitter taste of the plant.

Three horses were transferred to a veterinary hospital, though two were well enough to be released the next day, and the rest were treated at the ranch.

In July 2011, a giraffe died at a zoo in Tucson, Arizona, after being accidentally fed oleander leaves by an apprentice keeper. Another animal was taken ill but survived with careful medical attention. The zoo had a long-standing policy of feeding clippings from its extensive grounds to its browsing animals but, it seems, the apprentice went against the policy that only material identified by the head grounds' keeper should be collected. More details of this incident are given in the blog.

Folklore and Facts

nerium oleanderOleander is not native to the UK which led William Turner to say he has seen it in many parts of Italy but hopes it never comes to England as it is ‘lyke a Pharesey, that is beuteus without, and within, a ravenous wolf and murderer’.

In general, farm animals will avoid contact with Oleander. This leads to its use, in Mediterranean countries, as a field boundary in preference to an ugly fence. Often, the plant is seen along the roadside. The authorities, apparently, believing that humans have at least as much sense as cattle and can be trusted not to poison themselves when walking along the road.

The picture shows a main road on the Maltese island of Gozo lined with a mixture of oleander and other shrubs.