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Botany Blueprint: The Oleander

Specimen #4: Rose bay Oleander, Nerium oleander:

Adored, feared, and fabled, the oleander is an emblematic “deadly beauty.” Its blossoms are as vibrant and fragrant as they are toxic, and its cultural constructs have had a very long time to grow — the oleander’s chronology even precedes the concepts of mortality and attraction. Its history is marked in ancient fossil records (the Oligocene Era), texts from antiquity (Pliny the Elder), and early modern history: Napoleon is said to have lost a hundred troops to a dinner of meat roasted on oleander wood. In some versions of the story, it was a group of American boy scouts in the 1960s. This discrepancy in oral history might make both incidents sound apocryphal, but they also confirm the plant’s reputation as a useful trope.

Although some of these accounts are certainly inaccurate — too long ago to be proven, too vague to be verified — the oleander’s storied death toll is extensive, and many recent incidents are not in dispute. In 2003, a southern California woman was sentenced to death after attempting a combination of oleander and antifreeze to claim her husband’s life insurance. The plant is particularly fatal to smaller livestock (and small children). And there’s a reason it’s called the “suicide flower” in Sri Lanka.

The duality of death and beauty extends to the seed cases. Flourished with golden plumes and parachuting seeds, the oleander is a dreamy design. I still remember how a friend remarked that they made her “want to fly.” And indeed, that is what they do, with a passing breeze. And yes, these beauties are also poisonous, stopping the heart — literally and figuratively, if you will.

Romantics aside, the oleander is an interesting specimen of form and function, particularly in the seed pod. Let’s start at the beginning: pollination. Its numerous flowers offer neither nectar nor easy access to pollen, so while few blossoms will yield fruit, each pod can hold hundreds of seeds. This strategy allows the flower to allocate lots of resources to each pod and its concentrated stuffing of downy seeds. The high thread count is unwoven when the pod bursts open and the tufted clouds disperse. And while the oleander does grow quite well in dry conditions, its native habitats are along stream banks in the Mediterranean. As such, each seed is designed not to wander too far from the parent plant, a strategy mirrored by plants inhabiting discrete areas of fertile earth in an otherwise inhospitable landscape.

The oleander manages to stay close to home using an aerodynamic engineering feat in which the short hairs covering each seed fold inward when conditions are optimal, decreasing its flight distance. So while the oleander is commonly cultivated in warm urban areas (the colorful blossoms are often seen alongside freeways, as part of those “beautification initiatives” that lull us away from the slow, gray commute), chances are their inception was by human hand, not a wayward seed.

Yet despite its efficient biological strategies, the oleander would be hard-pressed to shed its primary reputation as one of history’s deadliest plants, an honor it shares with the oft-mythologized poison hemlock (the plant that killed Socrates), jimson weed (also known as “The Devil’s Trumpet”), and wolfsbane (considered by John Keats in his “Ode on Melancholy”). And while most botanists would not encourage consuming any from the list, they might try to allay the fantastic stories. One Australian horticulturist addressed cautious parents as he reflected on the oleander and its putative dangers: “the bitter taste would be likely to deter most children before any danger was done.”

Whether or not that inspires confidence, it seems preferable to be the stuff of legend, rather than the prosaic filler in the medians of Los Angeles.

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