Oleander: Look but do not touch


We’ve seen them everywhere: The white, pink and magenta flowers appear where little else is in bloom. These tough-as-nails plants thrive along our freeways up and down the state.

Oleanders, the perfect shrub for our hot summer climate.

Perfect? In many respects yes. Hardy, durable, cut-’em-to-the-ground-and-spring-back tough, they’ve earned a place in our landscape and hearts.

For a quick and beautiful hedge or screen, there is no parallel.

But, they are perfectly toxic.

When you next consider planting this shrub, heed the fact that it is packed with poisonous compounds.

Oleanders, members of the Apocynaceae (Dogbane family), are laced with bitter sap that contains Cardenolide Glycosides, which act upon the heart much like foxglove or Digitalis.

These toxic compounds have also been used from antiquity for various medical treatments. While studies and opinions differ on dosage, if enough oleander is consumed, it can prove fatal, especially to young children, small pets and livestock.

All plant parts of oleander, fresh or dry, are toxic if ingested. There are many recorded cases of oleander poisoning in this country every year. This may be of importance to people who have pets who tend to chew on plants, for play areas young children will frequent, or for situations that have plantings of oleander growing within nibble-reach of livestock.

In campground areas where coleander grow, care must be taken when choosing ‘skewers’ for roasting. While the long, thin, sturdy stems seem perfect for the job, they can prove a disastrous error of choice.

Care should be used when pruning oleander. Gloves and long sleeves are adequate protection. Skin irritation can occur from contact with the sap, and safety eyewear is a must when working with the plant to avoid accidental splashing of the acrid sap into your eyes.

Oleander is very difficult to eradicate once it is large and established. Consider how large these tall shrubs will get at maturity. Oleander can be pruned severely without harm to the plant, but over-planting or planting too close to sensitive areas leaves the problem of frequent disposal of the trimmings. Burning any part of oleander creates toxic smoke, so care must be taken to minimize contact with the fumes if you decide to burn it.

Oleander is a beautiful and important summer-hardy shrub with many different applications in your yard, so it doesn’t need to be avoided when designing your landscape. After all, plenty of other toxic plants are commonly used in our yards.

Understanding the limitations and dangers of any plant should help you design your landscape appropriately, and help you keep it safe.

Mitsy Krzywicki
Mitsy Krzywicki (pronounced Kriz wik’ ki), is an avid gardener, freelance graphics artist and photographer.
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15 Responses

  1. cdillon says:

    Thank you Mitsy. I lost a childhood rabbit friend to the oleanders planted along the fence in our backyard.

  2. Brandon says:

    I had to cut down three clumps of overgrown oleander when I bought my house. They were probably 15-feet tall, spindly and ugly as sin. I cut them back right to the ground, it took 5 full sized pick up truck loads to haul the trimmings away. I am trying to snuff out the plants, by covering them in black plastic, and then placing full bags of small decorative bark (still in the bag) for a couple of years – I hope that the roots will die and rot away during this time. It's been just over a year, and it seems to be working. Oleanders have their place, and I belive it's next to the freeway! 🙂

  3. johnnien says:

    I recently read an article which says (I cannot quote it exactly) that the oleander is dying out in California due to some disease, so you may not see them even in parkway plantings before long. I have them in my yard and enjoy their beauty. Sorry I don't recall which publication I read it in nor the exact cause of their ailment but the article was definite about their soon demise.

  4. Mitsy says:

    cdillon—It is sad that such a popular plant is so dangerous to pets!

    Jonnien—the oleander is under attack by the 'Glassy Wing Sharpshooter', a small insect that is introducing a bacterial infection that is eventually fatal.

    Brandon—The only way I was able to kill big oleander stumps was to burn them with small, very hot fires. Careful tending and hot burning reduces the toxic smoke. I built the fires much like a barbecue fire would be.

  5. Brandon says:

    Oh! Interesting! I had never thought of BBQ ing the root clumps away…. hmmmm, now where did I put the lighter fluid…… 🙂 B

  6. Cliff Livingstone says:

    Oleander – Have recently cut the hedge in half but can I put the clippings from the Oleander into the composter for use on the vegetable garden?



  7. dee says:

    Do not put oleander clippings in your composter! It is extremely toxic. Even California Oak leaves shouldn't be composted because the resins in the leaves kill other plants, but Oleander is poisonous.

  8. Misty says:

    I cut 7 overgrown oleanders out of the yard of the house we recently purchased and got terrible skin irritation had to get cortisone shots and everything it was miserable. Now 4 months later it seem the warm weather is bring back the skin irritation ever heard of such a thing?

    • Dan says:

      My husband had the same thing, he has seen more than 3 doctors and it still comes back. He did exactly what you did. He cut back the oleander and got a bad rash and it comes and goes with the temperature.

  9. chris busenkell says:

    yep, they’re a window dressing and not much more….well, not true.  they are a ROYAL PAIN IN THE A## when you’ve got one that’s happy and if it’s full grown, you’ll have problems.  My dilemma?  It’s all that and 40 years old and my dad planted it close enough to an underground irrigation pipe that it is immortal.  Poison? HAH.  Doesn’t work.  Cutting it all the way back and depriving it of water as much as you can?  NOPE.  Burning it back any time growth appears?  Well, in one season it grew back to being 5 feet by 5 feet but it’s resurrecting itsefl from a 40 year old root system that’s getting enough water.  What can you do?  Unfortunately, it gets worse.  My dad had surrounded the plant with a sheep fence back when he planted it to keep our ram from killing it because the ram didn’t want it there.  So the fence has been totally integrated into the multi-trunk beast making chainsawing impossible.  So, I got a sawzall and went to town, then let it really dry out in the Arizona sun, then started digging it out with a shovel, lets the roots dry out too, cutting any  major roots i could and finally, get charcoal briquettes and some lighter fluid and make a good sized, really hot fire, make it glow all night long, not with flames just hot embers and do that again if you have to.  Let it burn overnight as much as possible and dig out as much of the remains as you can.  I hope it’s not like bremuda grass, that stuff truly is immortal once it’s established itself.

  10. Cindy says:

    I trimmed oleander without gloves and developed spots and blisters over my face. Is there an in home remedy to heal? Or should I go to doctor?




    • Beverly Stafford says:

      Cindy, my pharmacist husband strongly suggests that you see a doctor.  Oleander has toxic properties that could cause more of a problem than just a rash and blisters.  Let us know what you find.  If you can’t see your own doctor right away, I’ll add that I was able to get in to see a doctor at Pulse on Cypress when I needed a quick appointment.

    • Byron says:

      I got a rash of the trunk of my body just stomach and back, went to the doctor and they prescriber the steroid Prednisone.  I am into my second day and it is doing the job bumps are disappearing itching is going away .  That is some nasty stuff  to deal with.

  11. Bev says:

    my husband keeps them as house plants. I keep begging him to get rid of them and he gets mad.  He won’t listen.

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