Poisonous plants

Oleander’s Gorgeous appearance hides a secret.

By Lee Ann Bramwell

You can do a lot of research into finding the perfect tree, and if you ask 10 friends (assuming you have that many) what they think, chances are they’ll each have a different opinion.

Deciding what might be the perfect small tree occupies many of my waking hours, and of course there’s no one perfect tree for every situation.

And wouldn’t you know it, when I finally find one that ticks all the boxes – evergreen, small, trimmable, fragrant, flowering, pale pink or white, easy to grow, undemanding and unfussy – it’s poisonous. And not just a little bit poisonous, but causing all manner of nasty symptoms, the most serious of which is death.

I didn’t even know what oleander were until I read the Janet Fitch book White Oleander several years ago, which alerted me to the fact that this plant was handy if you wanted to off your lover.

Now I’m quite familiar with them, since someone has planted a whole avenue of pale pink ones at the end of our road.

So I bought a few to thicken up the border between our property and the one next door, and despite their reputation for occasionally killing people and animals, I’m liking them even more since they flowered. The Partner has taken to wearing a gas mask and protective clothing, but he’s always been a little on the suspicious side.

Oleander is a member of the dogbane family Apocynaceae (“dogbane” scares me a bit, since we have a dog) and is well known to be toxic in all its parts. For that reason we’ve planted ours on the opposite bank of our stream, and since the dog is a wimp about water, there’s not much chance she’ll paddle over there to chew herself to death.

I’m not the only person to risk growing them – the oleander is so widely cultivated that no precise region of origin has ever been identified, although somewhere in southwest Asia has been suggested. The Romans knew it and used the leaves to cure hangovers, but I don’t think I’ll be trying that.

Another box the oleander ticks is that it’s fast growing. Those words have got me into trouble before, but in the case of oleanders, “fast growing” does not mean Sky Tower height. They’re fast growing until they’ve reached about 3-4m, and then, considerately, they stop.

They’re drought tolerant, grow in most soil types and are fire resistant, which could be a plus since I once set our shelter belt on fire by burning old bank statements in a rusty incinerator. However, inhaling the smoke from burning oleander can have poisonous results.

If you simply want to grow your oleander in its natural form, you won’t need to attack it with the loppers. As a tree it can be grown with a single trunk, but if you like you can prune it to have more texture and depth with multi-stemmed bases. Pruning should be done in late summer to early spring as this will help to stimulate branch growth.

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