BY EDITH BOX, Ph.D.
Oleanders garner many romantic stories
Historians believe the oleander is native to the Mediterranean region, traveled with explorers to the South Pacific, then found its way to the West Indies.Early in the British occupancy of the West Indies, Colonial governors attempted to make the area a fairyland by cultivation of choicest fruits and flowers from all over the world, adding to the beauty of the native flora.Masters of the Southward voyaging ships were charged with collecting seeds and cuttings for transplanting.
Responding to this charge, a captain returning from the South Sea Islands brought some oleanders which came to be known as “Sea Rose” or South Sea Rose.
Throughout the years, Galvestonians and others have used their imagination to produce fanciful legends as to the origin of the name “oleander” and the plant.Early Galveston citizens thought that it was a kind of olive bearing bush; this confusion with the olive tree whose Latin name is Olea may have been the source of the name. It is also surmised that the name oleander came from a corruption of the Latin name for rhododendron with which it has also been confused.
In keeping with the Mediterranean origin of the oleander,one legend has it that oleander in Greek mythology means romance and charm.A beautiful Greek maiden was wooed by Leander who swam the Hellespont every night to see his beloved. One night he was drowned in a Tempest.Wild waves dashed his body against sharp rocks and left him lifeless on the white sands. Here his lover found him as she walked the shores calling “Oh Leander, Oh Leander.”The beautiful flower was clutched in his hand. She removed it and kept it has a symbol of their love.Magically it continued to grow and from this symbol of everlasting love came the beautiful and abundant oleander.
The biblical Rose of Jericho is thought to refer to the oleander and there are Christian legends concerning its origin.In Tuscany, Italy, the oleander is known as St. Joseph’s Staff which was said to have burst into flower when in the Angel announced that he was to marry the Virgin Mary.In 1915, Charles M. Skinner published another legend concerning St. Joseph and the oleander in a local paper.It seems that a poor but lovely Spanish girl lay ill of a fever. Her mother tried all that her meager resources permitted to cure her daughter, but to no avail. Exhausted by her desperate efforts, the mother fell to her knees to pray to St. Joseph to spare her child. When she arose, the room was filled with a rosy glow from a figure bent over the girl.
The handsome Prince Neptune won her heart and everyone in the kingdom was overjoyed. a date was set for the waiting and the day dawned clear and bright. The guests were assembled for the ceremony when suddenly the son of Witch Hurricane appeared.
He was wildly angry and furious at losing the Princess.As he advanced, blackened and distorted with rage, the fairy god mother of the Princess intervened and waved her wand, transforming members of the wedding party into beautiful oleanders and stately palms.Prince Hurricane and his mother, the Witch, tore around all that day and the next without finding the Princess and they finally departed.Another legend involving the buccaneer, Jean Lafitte, in the establishment of oleanders on Galveston Island, is less romantic.In the pursuit of his pirate’s craft, Lafitte had attacked a Norwegian schooner and killed all the passengers except for one man was clinging to a beautiful flowering plant.His name was Ole Anderson. Lafitte saved him and made him his gardener, calling him Olea Ander. He later honored him by calling his flower by the same name.Two traditionally uses of the oleander come from different parts of the world.In India, Hindu mouners place oleanders about the bodies of dead relatives using the blooms as funeral flowers.