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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