Oleander Is a Dangerous Beauty

This shrub is a deadly yet desirable beauty.

Nerium oleander ~Calypso~ (01) Habit

Nerium oleander ~Calypso~ (01) Habit

'Calypso' oleander is cold-hardy and features bright flowers.

'Calypso' oleander is cold-hardy and features bright flowers.

How can some of the most beautiful plants be so toxic? Take oleander—that wonderfully large shrub that, despite high winds and salt spray along our coastlines, somehow manages to produce clusters of gorgeous blooms in summer in white, yellow, peach, salmon, pink or red. And yet oleander is considered one of the most poisonous plants in the world.  All parts of this gracefully mounded shrub contain poison; a single leaf ingested by a child is known to be deadly. 

But, as with thorny roses, prickly cacti, and toxic holiday plants, knowledge is key in preventing hazardous encounters with these landscape beauties. Native to the Far East and the Mediterranean, oleanders, Nerium oleander, grow easily—and rapidly—in the United States, especially southern coastal climes, where they’re often planted along highways as a noise and pollution barrier. These evergreens thrive with little care and are very tolerant of heat and drought. Most will survive temperatures as low as 15 to 20 degrees, though their foliage may get damaged. Yet even then, the shrubs recover quickly in spring so long as their roots are not harmed.

Oleanders grow best in full sun, and most reach 8 to 15  feet tall and as wide, so make sure you give these big guys plenty of space in the landscape. They flower from early summer until mid-autumn with large clusters of 2-inch single or double blossoms. Their long, narrow leaves are smooth but leathery.

A few cultivars to consider include: 

  • 'Algiers' features single, dark red flowers. 
  • ‘Calypso’ is cold hardy with cherry red single flowers. 
  • ‘Hardy Red' is extremely cold hardy with deep red single blooms.
  • ‘Petite Salmon’ is a dwarf plant but less cold hardy than most oleanders.
  • ‘Sister Agnes’ is hardy, grows to 12 feet and has large single white flowers.
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