Oleander - Encyclopedia

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OLEANDER, the common name for the shrub known to botanists as Nerium Oleander. It is a native of the Mediterranean and Levant, and is characterized by its tall shrubby habit and its thick lance-shaped opposite leaves, which exude a milky juice when punctured. The flowers are borne in terminal clusters, and are like those of the common periwinkle (Vinca), but are of a rose colour, rarely white, and the throat or upper edge of the tube of the corolla is occupied by outgrowths in the form of lobed and fringed petal-like scales. The hairy anthers adhere to the thickened stigma. The fruit or seed-vessel consists of two long pods, which, bursting along one edge, liberate a number of seeds, each of which has a tuft of silky hairs like thistle down at the upper end.

The genus belongs to the natural order Apocynaceae, a family that, as is usual where the juice has a milky appearance, is marked by its poisonous properties. Cases are recorded by Lindley of children poisoned by the flowers. The same author also narrates how in the course of thePeninsular War some French soldiers died in consequence of employing skewers made from freshly-cut twigs of oleander for roasting their meat. The oleander was known to the Greeks under three names, viz. rhododendron, nerion and rhododaphne, and is well described by Pliny (xvi. 20), who mentions its rose-like flowers and poisonous qualities, at the same time stating that it was considered serviceable as a remedy against snake-bite. The name is supposed to be a corruption of lorandrum, lauridendrum (Du Cange), influenced by olea, the olive-tree, lorandrum being itself a corruption of rhododendron. The modern Greeks still know the plant as pob05auvrt, although in a figure in the Rinuccini MSS. of Dioscorides a plant is represented under this name, which, however, had rather the appearance of a willow herb (Epilobium). The oleander has long been cultivated in greenhouses in England, being, as Gerard says, "a small shrub of a gallant shewe"; numerous varieties, differing in the colour of their flowers, which are often double, have been introduced.

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