The Oleander - From Whence Came Thee

by Elizabeth Head

A compilation of data with special recognition of the information published by F.J.J. Pagen (12 ). Program was given to International Oleander Society members at September 1999 meeting)


From the first verse of my poem, you can see my curiosity about the history of the oleander:

Blossoms with the Past(34),

Perfumed air, brilliant hues

Cause me to wonder and to muse

What ship brought thee from afar?

What voice named thee oleander?

I shall attempt to answer some of these questions from my research and you will see that we admire and propagate a very ancient flower. The history begins with the ancient botanical explorers, collectors and scientific writers who are sometimes known as the plant hunters.(20)


From the map you can see the early geographical distribution history of the oleander shown as black dots.(12) These are areas where it grows in the wild or where it was naturalized to the wild many many years ago. It is widely cultivated and naturalizes very easily which makes it only subspontaneous in some of these areas.



It grows naturally in a wet habitat, well exposed to the sun.(12) You will find it on the banks and beds of streams and wadis that carry water during at least part of the year. It can grow in an altitude of 100 meters near the Dead Sea to about 2500 meters in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa. Its long roots enable the plant to tap water from deep sources. Thus you find it all along the areas near the coast and on into Asia. Also, it is cultivated generally throughout East Africa. (36)

Research does not lead one back to the actual beginning when the plant that we now know as the oleander began to evolve and to take its place on the earth, but it can take one back in history to the time about 4000 BC. Of course, the oleander was not known by its current name but scholars have been able to identify it as the plant we now know as the oleander. To begin with, H.W. Smith(15) in his book Man and His Gods mentioned that it was cultivated in the Valley of the Nile during the Old Kingdom Dynastic Period (3400-2475 BC)

1999 was the Jewish year 5760 and if you subtract 2000 you will find yourself in the time written about in the Bible about 3700 BC. Quoting from the Bible: On the 15th day of the 7th month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall keep the feast of the Lord 7 days, on the lst day shall be a solemn rest, and on the 8th day shall be a solemn rest. And you shall take on the lst day, a fruit of a goodly tree, date palm fronds, and a bough of a leafy tree, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the lord your God 7 days." Leviticus 39-40 (6).

In reference to the four plants mentioned above, the Hebrew sages see " the 4 species as symbols of the historical move from the desert to the promised land."(6) The oleander is one of 3 candidates for the leafy tree. The other two are the plane tree and the myrtle.

"Said the sages: 'the ways of the Bible are pleasant,' so it cannot be the oleander (because the oleander is known as a poisonous plant, and even though its branches do 'cover the tree's trunk' and it is thick and leafy, it is impossible that the Bible-whose 'ways are pleasant'-would command the use of a poisonous plant in celebrating this holiday." (Sukka 32b) (6) (Neot Kedumin-The Gardens of Israel.)

Another possible name for the oleander in the Bible is the Rose of Jericho. The oleander is a sign of water and in the Book of Ben-Sirah-It is like the rose that was planted at the river.(21) The rose (vered) is a bush (rodon varon). The Greeks call it the Dafna rose because of the beautiful flowers and the resemblance of the leaves to a plant called Dafna found in Israel. It is called rodofne in the book, Psachim. Also, in a translation from this book is found-Because Moses sweetened the sour water with it, it was a miracle within a miracle, as the oleander was also bitter."(21) In Holin, Mishna, the oleander is mentioned as an animal poison.

Finally, in Israel it is used to make temporary shelters for the Feast of the Tabernacles.(12)

Next, I will take us to the time 2900-1200 BC. The time of the Phoenecians. The oleander is reported to have been introduced to Western Europe by the early Phoenecian colonists.(2) Phoenecia is on the map in the area of Syria, Lebanon and Israel of today. They were the first to send out explorers and establish colonies throughout the Mediterranean regions.(27)(38) They lived as early as 2900 BC but they did not become a great sea power until 1100 BC.(38) Phoenecia was one of the garden spots of the Roman empire and so it seems logical that they would also introduce familiar plants to their new colonies and outposts. (This could explain the areas of distribution around the shores of the Mediterranean.)

It is known that the Ancient Greeks maintained holy forests of oleanders and garnished altars with their blossoms to honor the Nereides, who were considered to be infallible guides.(12) The word Nerium could be derived from the Greek Nerion, which supposedly refers to the Greek Sea God Nereus and his daughters the Nereides. In Greek mythology Nereus was one of the old Men of the Sea, the son of Pontus (the High Seas) and Gaia (the Earth).(29)(5) His wife was Doris, daughter of Oceanus. He represented the elementary forces of the world and was considered a benevolent and beneficient God. The Nereids were sea deities numbering 50 or more and were said to personify the countless waves of the sea. One of these was Thetis, mother of Achilles. They were said to have lived in the bottom of the sea and have been pictured playing in the waves.

It has also been suggested that Nerion is derived from the Greek Neros, which means moist and refers to the wet places where the plant grows wild.(12 ) Dioscorides (b. c.AD40-d. c.90)(24) used Nerion to indicate the oleander and knew it as a plant growing wild near the sea and along rivers and sometimes cultivated in gardens.(12) He said the leaves could be used as a counter poison to snake bites.(2) In Greece it is known as Rhododaphne and it was used in funerals.

In 330 BC, Theophrastus (b. c.372BC-d. c.287)(28), a pupil of Aristotle, spoke of a bush with leaves like an almond and a red flower like the rose.(2) He knew it as Oenothera. He was known as the Father of Botany and 2, 330 years later, Greek words still name some of our flora. (32)

Cicero (106-43 BC) was said to have the oleander in the Roman Gardens.(12)

Pliny, an Italian (AD23-79), wrote many historical and technical works.(23) He gave directions on how to propagate by layering and by seed in his Historia Naturalis.(12) He said the Greeks called it Nerion, Rhododendros, Rhododaphne-but it hath not found a name with the Latines.(2) Only his 37 volume work mentioned above has survived and its only value now is to show the state of scientific knowledge at that time.(23) In Italy it is known as Lauro Rose, Leandro and others.

In Pompeii on the 24th day of August, AD79, Vesuvius erupted and covered Pompeii with a 23 foot thick layer of volcanic dust and pumice.(10) It has been under excavation since the 18th century and is 60% or more uncovered. It is now being restored in place. The oleander is the plant most frequently represented in the garden paintings on the walls of peristyle gardens.(12) A peristyle garden is enclosed by a colonade or at least on 2-3 sides. These murals made the small gardens appear larger. The oleander was usually pictured in an informal setting, growing in masses and forming a background for fountains, vases, and statues.

Periscape Garden, Pompeii

The International Oleander Society assisted with the Pompeii exhibit at the Houston Museum in 1991 and Kewpie Gaido and I took oleander plants to be included in the reproduction of the peristyle garden. (31)

Kewpie Gaido and Mary Joe Naschke POMPEII exhibit Jan .12, 1991, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Murals such as those in Pompeii were also found in the garden room of the Villa at Prima Porta built by Augustus for his wife Livia and in the auditorium of Maecenas in Rome.(12)

Pictured in the Horizon book of Ancient Rome is the area of The Forum, hub of Romes public life.(13) Here we see the Arch of Septimius Severus and you will notice an oleander growing nearby and, also, in murals from a Roman villa in North Africa.

The Moors (in general, Muslims) of Mauretania, Northwestern Africa "attributed great magical virtue to The Sultan of the Oleander which is a stalk with 4 pairs of leaves clustered around it." They also spoke of the wind in the oleanders which was said to make delicate voice-like music.(11)

In the 12th century, the oleander was one of the flowering shrubs together with the myrtle and the rose used by Arab gardeners of the Dar-al-Islam.(12)

In China, the oleander was said to have been in the gardens since the Middle Ages.(9) In 1299 a Treatise on Bamboo mentioned a bamboo-like plant in pots that was later identified as the oleander. Its first arrival was said to be from a sea route to Fukien Province in the South. Cultivating the oleander was the hobby of literary men who adorned their studies with cut blooms.(12) They liked the scent and elegant habit of the plant and they chose it as an emblem of grace and beauty. Three characters were used to name it-mingle, bamboo and peach blossom -because the flowers resemble peach blossoms and the foliage the bamboo, (KIA TCHOU TAO). It was also used for medicinal properites.(22)

In the China of today it is said that at least one bush of a flowering shrub is to be found in every farm yard.(3) In every town, flowers are always on sale where food is bought and flowers are very cheap to buy.

In the 15th century, the only variety known and cultivated in Europe was the common Mediterranean form, a single odorless pink to red blossomed plant.(12) In 1547, a single white was introduced into Italy. It had been found in Crete, near Camerachi on Mt. Ida . Crete was the home of the ancient civilization of the Minoans. (32)Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) was a Swiss doctor known for his systematic compilation of information on animals and plants.(25) He published many diverse works-one of which was Historiae Animalium. He never completed a similar one on plants but his notes and 1500 wood engravings of plants and their important flowers and seeds were used by other authors for 2 centuries after his death. In 1560, he mentions oleander in cultivation in Basel, Switzerland.(12)

John Gerard (1545-1612) was an English herbalist and author ofThe Herball or general historie of plants in 1597.(25) While studying in London he became interested in plants and created a garden. Both he and his garden became very popular and people brought him plants and seeds from all parts of the world. In 1596, he compiled a list of plants in his garden and published it in 1597. It contained 1000+ species and was the first plant catalogue. He probably used the work of others with descriptions and wood cuts. His Herball was immensely popular and contained common and botanical names, descriptions of habitats, time of flowering, and uses and folklore. In 1596 in England, there were the red and white forms.(12)

Dr. Clarissa Kimber of Texas A&M gave the Society an interesting program at one of our Oleander Festival seminars.(8) Her doctoral student, Darrel McDonald, also has spoken to us several times. The field known as ethnobotany studies how plants have migrated with people around the world. She told us that exploring and colonizing nations established plant collecting and plant introduction gardens in their cities and in the colonial areas. These gardens were (a) staging areas for plants to be redistributed to colonies for agriculture (b) medicinal plants (c) growing out places for rare and unknown plants to be studied taxonomically and (d) parks for leisure.

From the 1500s on, the Dutch were keenly aware of the economic potential of food, spice and horticultural varieties.(8) The Dutch and French established way stations for new plants in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. These stations later developed into Botanic and Introduction Centers such as the ones established in Padua, Italy in 1545, in Leyden, The Netherlands in 1579, in Jardin les Plantes, France in 1635 and Kew in England in 1759. Also in the New World in St. Vincent and Martinique in the Caribbean and Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.

Oleanders have been grown in England for over 400 years.(2) Exotics such as the oleander found their way into English " hybernizing houses" by way of diplomatic couriers, merchant seamen and other travelers.(20) Nurserymen had paid agents at the docks whenever shipping made the Port of London. It is said that the plants in England were grown from seed brought from Spain(2) (colonized by the Phoenecians). For generations the oleander was a favorite plant of English gardeners and were grown in large tubs and planters. It was the favorite plant of sun rooms in 1596.

Nerium Bloom, India

In India, the oleander is considered a native of the western Himalayas and west to Nepal extending through Persia to the Mediterranean and also east to Japan.(33) Here mention was made of the hose in hose flower type. It is called Kaner by the Hindi, Karabi by the Bengals, and also Rose Bay. Oleander flowers are among those chosen by the Hindus to offer to the God Siva. They are also used in funerals. In India, flowers are believed to have great spiritual significance. Quoting from Flowers--their Spiritual Significance(30) "In fact, in all countries, flowers have been associated with religion and worship, with myths and legends. And to people all over the world they have been symbols of love and remembrance. A flower contains all the elements of nature...air, water, fire, earth and ether. Apart from its beauty of form, colour, fragrance and texture, there is something more-an indefinable, subtle and mysteriousquality about it." In the words of The Mother, the oleander is a flower in the Clock of Nature. You will find it at the hours between 4 and 6 and its spiritual name is Quiet Mind for the single white flower and Perfect quietness in the mind for the double white.

"We have been sent the book mentioned above by member R. Haresh of India and also have one called Red Oleanders, a play by Indian author Tagore.(17) whose heroine Nandini was symbolized by the oleander, interpreted as fraility or the red badge of courage.

It has been recorded as being introduced to Bermuda in 1790.(14) The English had instructed the Governors of such colonies to make the islands beauty spots of the world. Some historians trace the oleander to the South Sea Islands.(7) A captain of a sailing ship is said to have brought it to the West Indies Islands where it was known as the South Sea Rose.

Spain is a country with an old and rich horticultural tradition.(18) The Spanish were expert gardeners who adapted freely from other cultures. They traveled widely and established colonies in all of the Gulf Coast States of the United States. In 1565, the oleander was brought to Florida by early Spanish settlers.(12) The purpose of these colonies were to be military outposts first, and agricultural outposts second.(18) The Spanish knew the oleander as Adelfa, Alendro, or Laurel Rosa. Their influence on American colonial gardening remains strong in the Southern United States today.

In 1683, Van Rheede Tot Drakestein introduced a single fragrant light pink variety into Europe from India.(12) The double pink form was introduced by Beverningk from Ceylon. In 1689, an Indian oleander with variegated double flowers was brought to Leiden.

Tournefort (1656-1708) was a French botanist and doctor who went to Asia Minor and Greece.(28) He wrote his Elements de botanique. He was a pioneer in systematic Botany-he introduced the single Latin name for the genus of a plant, followed by descriptive words for the species. In 1688 he became a professor at the Jardin de Plants. In 1700 he gave the oleander the official genus name of Nerion.(12)

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) was a Swedish naturalist and doctor who provided biology with a descriptive procedure, a standardized terminology and nomenclature and ways to handle and organize systematic information.(26) He introduced the BINOMIAL NOMENCLATURE system. Before, as mentioned above, you had a Latin or Greek generic name followed by descriptive terms. These differed greatly from person to person and created a great chaos. He produced his Speciesplantarum in 1753. In this work he gave a classification of the genera defined on the basis of an internally consistent set of criteria. He based this on the number of stamen or structure of the ovaries. He introduced a fixed descriptive terminology for botany and zoology and named the genus Nerium in 1737.(12) We know the oleander to this day as Nerium oleander L. which stands for Linnaeus. He studied medicine and natural science.(26) In 1735 he went to Harderwijk University to become acquainted with Dutch botanists and to find a publisher. He published his Systema naturae and met George Clifford, a wealthy banker who hired him to describe his collections of plants and animals on his estate. Here he produced the Hortus Cliffortianus and also Fundamenta botanica and Genera plantarum. He became a Professor of Botany at the University of Upsala.

A pupil of Linnaeus, Daniel Solander (1736-1782) sailed with Joseph Banks as Botanist on Capt. Cooks first voyage of exploration in The Endeavor from 1768-1771.(16) He named the oleanders he found in India as Nerium odorum and in earlier times you will find those he named as Nerium odorum Soland, a second species. He became keeper of the Natural History Department of the British Museum, London.

Philip Miller (1691-1771) also named the fragrant Indian varieties as Nerium indicum Mill.(16) Miller was an English gardener and botanist who was curator of the Chelse Physic Garden and author of the Gardeners Dictionary in 1731. Present scholars have now determined that the genus Nerium is monotypic and no longer use these other two names for species.(12)

Also in the 1748, Weinmann introduced a variegated leaf form of the Mediterranean single pink and Indian oleander with red double flowers; in 1789, Aiton mentions a double form of both the Indian and Mediterranean varieties.(12)

In 1812, a yellow, single form of the Indian oleander named Nerium flavescens was discovered by Di Spio; in 1840, Bosse mentions 36 varieties and in 1849, 58.(12)

In France, a reference to an oleander cultivar appeared in a nursery catalogue in 1799. (4) We later find Vincent van Gogh painting the oleander in 1888-Majolica Jar with Branches of Oleanders and another in Arles.(37)

Van Gogh's oleanders

The Index kewensis, published in 1894 by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, lists species under their genus and details whether or not they are true or misnamed species. This index helped me reply to an inquiry about a Nerium tinctorium which was supposed to be used to make a beautiful blue dye. It had been incorrectly called a Nerium and was instead a Wrightia species.

In 1898, Claud Sahut in Montpelier, France, offered 170 cultivars growing in his nursery.(12) He listed the flower type with superposed corolas in 1868 . In France, they are known as the Laurier, laurelle, or the Fleur de St. Joseph. Today in France, the Filippi nursery catalogue of Clara and Olivier Filippi lists 112 varieties.(35)

Cornelius Weygandt in his book, A Passing America, describes the oleander amongst the early colonists.(19) His mothers family had come to the United States on the Mayflower. As a background he writes that in Britain and Germany the oleander was not an uncommon houseplant. Consequently, the oleander was found everywhere among the Pennsylvania Dutch, both the rose, double, and the white, single. Bottles with cuttings would hang in the back sheds. He quotes-”The loss of our old double rose plant of 2 score and more years took a measurable joy out of my life. There is a satisfaction difficult to express in the possession of a plant that had come to you from your people. It is not exactly the pleasure you have in an heirloom, but in something you value because it ministers to a sort of pride you have in the well being of the stock from which you are sprung. The plants that your parents cared for are a living link between you and them. The very perishability of the plant makes it dearer.........So when we lost our old oleander, I felt in a minor way that sort of helplessness we all feel in the presence of death."

Scholars have mentioned that the oleanders were favorite plants in Jeffersons time. At restored Monticello, large plants are wintered over in the old earthen cellars.

William Bollaert in his book on Texas (1) mentions New Orleans in 1842-In New Orleans and its vicinity, vegetation is most prolific in the flower gardens. Exotics such as we have under glass in England are to be seen in great variety in the open air, particularly, the Nerium oleander forming groves.

Oleanders came to Galveston on a trading ship from Jamaica.(7) Both the double pink and the single white as mentioned in APassing America arrived here in 1841. It is also probable that others were brought here from New Orleans where groves of oleanders were already fluorishing. In interviewing older Galveston residents, I was told that during the early 1900s many cuttings were brought back from trips to Europe.

The oleander has thrived in this island city of Galveston which is now known as "The Oleander City." In 1967, oleander admirers organized and incorporated the National Oleander Society and began to preserve the many varieties that had developed here. In 1987, the original name was officially changed to the International Oleander Society since the beautiful plant is known and admired on a world wide scale as you can see from its history.

Members have sent us pictures from all over the globe which we share with you on Around the World.

We would like to acknowledge Mrs. Elizabeth Head for her hard work and determination in compiling this article. Mrs. Head is the driving force behind the International Oleander Society and her dedication to the promotion of the oleander is admired by all its members.

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