The oleander plant, which belongs to the apocynaceae family and apocynoideae subfamily, is the only member of the nerium genus. These evergreen plants are made up of shrubs and small trees, and have a broad range of native growth – from areas of the Mediterranean, Portugal and Morocco, all the way through to southern regions of China. These plants can grow between 6 to 20 feet in height, and are made up of erect or spreading branches; whorling, lance-shaped foliage; and thick clusters of flowers. The lanceolate leaves are thick and leathery, and can grow up to 10 inches in length and 1 inch in width. The clustered blossoms develop at the tip of the branches, and consist of deep, 5-lobed petals, and a fringed tube; these flowers come in shades of red, pink, white, purple and yellow.
There is no doubt that the oleander plant is beautiful, but it is also considered highly toxic. Consumption of nearly any part of this plant is said to cause a myriad of ill effects, from stomach ailments to irregular heartbeat, seizures to skin irritation. Despite this fact, the oleander plant has long been considered medicinal. For over 3000 years, this lovely shrub has had strong backing as a potent curative. Both the Romans and the Babylonians created concoctions of oleander to treat hangovers; Pliny the Elder, an ancient Greek naturalist, recommended a syrup of oleander, rue and wine to cure snakebites; while the author John Gerard suggested that if the plant was used externally it had a “digesting faculty,” but internal use could be fatal. In more recent times, the use of oleander as a remedy has had a resurgence. One great example of this is a supplement known as Sutherlandia OPC Extract, which was created by a South African naturopath named Dr. Marc Swanepoel. A recent study of this supplement, which contains a small amount of oleander extract, has shown great promise in both stabilizing, and even reversing the symptoms of HIV; there is so much promise, in fact, that the South African government has approved the supplement, and it is now being produced at a rate of 10,000 bottles a month.
Because of the dual nature of the oleander plant – being both beautiful and poisonous, toxic and healing – it is not surprising that it is the emblem of caution. Although these shrubs may be presented as something of a warning, they are most often given as gifts purely for their natural beauty and intoxicating scent. Though oleander blossoms are occasionally given in an arrangement, they are most commonly presented as potted plants.