One of the bright sights once summer starts to heat up is the vibrant color from oleander. This tough, Mediterranean shrub (officially known as Nerium oleander) has been a mainstay of the landscaping industry for decades. It graces freeways up and down the state and withstands the rigors of curbside strips, thriving in hot, dry areas. It can be trained into a tree-like shape or allowed to billow luxuriantly where space allows. Along the freeway, it gets a severe heading back every few years and rebounds with aplomb.
Oleander is in the milkweed family, Apocynaceae, which also includes milkweed-Asclepias, wax flower-Hoya, and Mandevilla. Its flowers are typically single whorls of five showy petals in shades of yellow, white, and pink. Some varieties have been selected for double flowers and deep colors. The flowers are also sweetly fragrant. Leaves are dark green and leathery, making a good screen or hedge when not in flower. It does have a long bloom season, though, typically starting in spring and continuing on until cool fall weather. Standard varieties can reach 20 feet, but there are several dwarf selections that remain fewer than five feet in height.
Oleander has one drawback that anyone contemplating planting it or maintaining current plantings should be aware of: All parts of the plant are intensely toxic. Ingestion of even small amounts can result in poisoning and even death. Keep it away from children’s play areas and pet and livestock pens. The milky sap can even cause temporary dermatitis if it comes in contact with the skin. Take all necessary precautions to avoid that. Dispose of any cut leaves and wood by thorough composting. Do not burn the wood as the smoke can still contain the toxins.
In some areas, oleander has recently suffered from a bacterial infection causing leaf scorch. The disease is spread by the glassy-winged sharpshooter or one of its relatives. There is no known cure once the plant is infected. In spite of this, oleander remains a useful landscape plant for difficult areas and now is the time to enjoy them.