Our garden is full of the ultimate Mediterranean summer flower, the oleander, in bloom right now. This plant whose flowers vary in hue from apricot to lilac, via salmon, pink, red, yellow, copper and even white, used to conjure up memories of summer holidays for me. (Now it’s just the arrival of summer, not specifically holidays). Driving on the long journey south through France you knew you had nearly arrived when the motorway central reservations became a riot of these colours. Every town in Provence has oleanders growing somewhere, they’re hardy, need very little water, bloom for months and months and look very jolly. But the oleander is no ordinary flower; it’s the flower with power!
But these innocent looking plants harbour a secret – they’re deadly poisonous. There are a number of urban myths surrounding their power; legends relate stories of either French soldiers or US boy scouts making skewers out of oleander branches to roast food on and dying of poisoning (take your pick which version you prefer!) Joking aside, they really do contain a powerful toxin which can be fatal for animals if ingested in large quantities and the sap can cause skin irritations, though there are very few cases of human death from oleander poisoning.
However, there is one notorious case of murder-by-oleander! In 1999 Oprah Winfrey chose a book for her Book Club ensuring it became an international best seller. In this book, White Oleander by Janet Fitch, a woman murders her partner using oleander sap. A year later, a woman from Los Angeles killed her husband using a mix of antifreeze and oleander sap in a macabre true-life copycat killing. She was sentenced to death and as far as I can gather is still awaiting execution on death row.
So, oleanders have the power to kill, but while that’s just a bit of sensationalism to spice up this post, they really do have the ability to brighten up any garden, public space, hedgerow or park. Oleanders are showy and fragrant, drought-resistant and tolerant of temperatures as low as -10° celsius. They can grow up to 6 metres and clever gardeners can prune oleander bushes into trees. They make great hedging, or stand-alone ornamental flowers. Best of all for lazy gardeners they provide a long-lasting burst of colour for very little effort!
Do you have a flower that reminds you of a particular time or place? What’s flowering in your garden right now? I’d love to hear from you.
You may enjoy these other posts about the garden at Lou Messugo:
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