Garden life

Deadly oleander

This popular but poisonous evergreen shrub grows rapidly, writes Kiran Narain

The oleander or Nerium oleander (family Apocynaceae) is a beautiful evergreen shrub from the Mediterranean region. Its capacity to withstand heat, dust, air-pollution and even seaside salt spray has made it a very popular plant from growing on road medians, parks and gardens.

A tough evergreen shrub with narrow, pointed leaves in dull green which occur in whorls of three, it grows up six or even 15 feet or more. It bears clusters or waxy single or double gardenia-like flowers in white (N. album), yellow or orange (N. luteum plenum) and deep pink to red (N. splendens) the last being cultivated the most due to its large, fragrant flowers. The plant grows erect, branching out into short stems in all directions and the flowers are borne in clusters at the tips. The flowers are about 1 inch to 2 inches across, flowering through spring to autumn with minimum care. It is a rapid grower. The variety of N. odorum from Persia is very sweet scented but is less vigorous in growth.

Even though oleander grows almost in every soil be it in full sun or partial shade, the ideal condition would be to provide it with a sunny location and well-drained soil enriched with leaf-mould and kept moist. It benefits from occasional pruning and can be cut back to about a foot from the ground keeping three or more buds at the base. After flowering, new growth will come up quickly. The flowers though grow on stems which have become woody and ripened under sunlight.

If grown in large pots or tubs, a compost of three parts loam, and one part leaf-mould with some sand would be good for it. Moderate watering is advised during the growing period, taking care that the top `BD inch soil dries out before it is watered again. Plants in the open are know to have survived even severe drought conditions as is the case with our roadside plants.

Oleanders can be propagated by well-ripened terminal cuttings cut just below a node, which can either be planted straight into a mixture of sand and moss or rooted first in water kept in the sun till the roots are formed.

Every part of Oleanders is highly poisonous so children and other members of the family should be warned. Branches of Oleanders are best set on fire after pruning. Even the sap, which tends to leak out if the plant is injured, is an irritant no wonder then, that the plants are safe on the roads from stray cattle.