Friday, June 19, 2009

Oh Leander!




Oleander (Nerium oleander). Doesn't it just scream "Mediterranean" at you. Not of course that you won't find it elsewhere - but for me, the image of the oleander has always been connected with lines of rather dusty and straggly trees lining the roadsides in southern Italy. Too dusty and straggly for me occasionally. A bit like buddleia - one of those trees which should be lovely but sometimes disappoint.



But that was before I moved here. The gardens and courtyards around the flat are full of oleanders, and they seem to thrive on the smog and pollution of Milan. All the gardens in our street have them, and at the moment they're in full bloom - I took all these photos in a ten minute walk up the road this afternoon.


Oleanders can be yellow, orange, white, red or a multitude of shades of pink. But here at least the yellow and orange varieties seem to be much rarer. Flowers can be single, or as with the wonderful specimen from our courtyard in the top photo, double.




It's said that they get their name from the myth of Hero and Leander. Hero was a priestess of Aphrodite who dwelt in a tower in Sestos, at the edge of the Hellespont (now known as the Dardenelles - the straits which, together with the Bosphorus, divide Turkey geographically between European and Asia), while Leander was a young man from Abydos on the other side of the straits. Leander fell in love with Hero and would swim every night across the Hellespont to be with her. Hero would light a lamp at the top of her tower to guide his way.



This went on all one summer until one stormy winter night, the waves were too strong for poor Leander and the wind blew out Hero's signal. Leander lost his way, drowned, and Hero found the dead body washed up on the shore, still clutching a flower in one hand. I don't know who it was who heard her lament of Oh Leander! Oh Leander! and decided to rename the flower but, rather than trying to make their name in botanical history, you'd have thought they'd have decided to spend their time looking after the poor girl and preventing her from zapping back up to the tower to throw herself off. Such is love ...



Though my sympathies lie rather with the more cynical view of my favourite Shakespearian heroine Rosalind, who in Act IV of As You Like It exclaims : Leander, he would have lived many a fair year, though Hero had turned nun, if it had not been for a hot midsummer night; for, good youth, he went but forth to wash him in the Hellespont and being taken with the cramp was drowned and the foolish coroners of that age found it was 'Hero of Sestos.' But these are all lies: men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.



But back to the tree : Oleanders are hideously poisonous. Well, some sources say reports of their toxicity are exaggerated, but I didn't experiment. Keen as I am on writing killer posts, there are limits ... Keep them away from your kids, pets and horses, don't eat any part of the plant, keep the sap off your skin, and don't try burning the leaves or branches - even the smoke is toxic.. Check here for general information and here specifically for horses - apparently an ounce of oleander leaves can kill a 1,000lb horse.




Presuming though that you can trust your family and pets to lay off the tree, I'd strongly recommend an oleander if you've got the right conditions. It will grow in most soils, and is drought tolerant. It will survive down to about -7°C (20F), but may suffer frost damage - in which case it will need to be pruned back. However, it needs the summer sun to flower properly. Plant it in the shade and you won't get the sort of blooms you can see here. It flowers off the new growth, so prune after flowering.


They'll grow to 20ft in the garden, but also do well in containers. Look up at the balconies in Milan and you'll often see them leaning over the balustrade.




They're easy to grow from cuttings, and I started one a couple of years back. It did well at first and even gave me some blooms, but last year was badly attacked by red spider mite - trust them not to find it toxic. I had to cut it right back and this year, though it's back in growth, there have been no blooms. The cutting came from the tree below - now imagine that on the balcony ....











10 comments:

Miss Daisy said...

Very beautiful! I don't really see Oleander where I live (Utah), so it was beautiful to see all of your photography! I'm now a follower! I hope to see you around at my blog!

chaiselongue said...

Thanks for the Leander and Hero story, which I hadn't heard before. Here oleanders grow in gardens, along the roadsides at the entry to villages and in parks, because they are drought resistant. After the first year they don't need watering at all. Their lovely almond scent hides their toxicity, though. I've heard they're deadly poisonous, although I've never heard of anyone who has actually suffered from them, which is strange considering how many of them there are! I remember making 'perfume' by putting the flowers in water when I was a child, which must have been horribly dangerous!

VW said...

These shrubs always remind me of California, since that's where I first saw them. Maybe I'll update my memory process if I ever visit Italy!

Jan said...

I didn't know Oleander's were poisonous! Here in Spain they often line the central reservation on motorways, in fact that's why we bought some because they were obviously very hardy... and beautiful!

Chris said...

Thanks for the lovely pictures and interesting information. I hadn't been familiar with Oleander before since it is not planted where I live.

Carrie said...

Fabulous photos and great write up!

Sandy said...

Hi Sue,
Thank you for sharing this helpful information. And the story of Leander and Hero had made the plant even more interesting :)

LadyLuz said...

AS Jan said earlier, they're in glorious bloom on all the motorways and don't seem to suffer one bit.

wvquill said...

Lovely. I knew oleanders as trees, in Brazil.

Chandramouli S said...

Wonderful shots and information about the Oleander, Sue. That story about Leander was interesting. This is my all-time favorite as it blooms throughout the year here.

Related Posts with Thumbnails