Unsung shrubs brighten gardens

Oleanders are not what some might consider a «special» garden plant, either because they are poisonous or because of the long uniform lines of shrubs bearing pink or white blossoms that line the country’s highways. Yet Nerium oleander (oleander, pikrodafni), one of the few summer-flowering Mediterranean shrubs, comes in so many varieties that their less knowledgeable detractors might not even recognize some of them as being the same species as the common streetside plant – which, incidentally, is a great absorber of exhaust fumes without sustaining any appreciable damage. One gardener in Attica who has made a hobby of growing oleander varieties has collected about 100 different ones from around the world. «I used to collect them from Greek gardens but there weren’t enough varieties. They are very easy to propagate from cuttings,» he said. The mail-order supplier of Mediterranean plants, Filippi, which has what is probably the biggest collection in the world, mentions nearly 40 perfumed varieties and about 25 compact, dwarf varieties ( They describe the perfume as something like honey, strongest during the hottest part of the day. To get an idea of the range of oleander shrubs, one need go no further than the website of the International Oleander Society ( to see examples of the amazing colors (from deep scarlet through coral and lilac to pale salmon, not to mention the novel varieties) and forms (single, double, triple or even quadruple blooms) of the oleander flowers and the plants themselves (from full-sized to dwarf). Looking through the photographs of the different blooms is more like browsing through a rose catalog. The society holds an annual oleander festival in Galveston, a city on an island off the mainland of the state of Texas, which contains the most extensive collections of Nerium oleander to be found anywhere in the world, and published «The Handbook on Oleanders» by Richard and Mary Helen Eggenberger. In Greece, the oleander has been around for some time and has been known in the Mediterranean for 2,000 years. One person who has spent a lot of time and patience growing oleanders is Irmtraud Gotsis, who lives on the coast in Messinia, in the western Peloponnese, where she has been gardening for about 20 years. «When I first came here, people wondered why I bothered with oleanders because they were so ‘ordinary’,» Gotsis told Kathimerini English Edition. She began by propagating from seeds and cuttings supplied by friends. A selection of photographs from her collection can be seen on the society’s website. Gotsis has also written an article on growing oleanders from seed in the latest issue of Mediterranean Gardening, the journal of the Mediterranean Garden Society. She explains how one can propagate oleanders from seed at any time of year. In winter, the seed will germinate if the containers are placed on or near a radiator and moved to a sunny window sill when the emerging leaf tops can be seen. «Depending on the weather – and even in February/March the sun is warm – the seedlings can be moved outside. With some protection they will be able to withstand the cold of the night,» writes Gotsis. Young plants need a lot of water, as oleanders need to be in a sunny position throughout the year, especially in winter. The seed pods ripen in January, and the seeds have to be collected as soon as the pods open. In another article on the IOS site, Gotsis gives an example of companion planting with oleanders, having observed that wherever a cypress tree grows alongside an oleander, the cypress is less likely to suffer from disease. The plant is not so kind to mammals, however. It contains the toxins oleandrin and nerioside, which very similar to the toxins in foxglove (Digitalis), and cause gastrointestinal problems, heart abnormalities and even death. But it is by no means the only poisonous garden plant. Historians believe the oleander is native to the Mediterranean region, traveled with explorers to the South Pacific, then found its way to the West Indies. Care and propagation Hardy oleanders survive a wide variety of soil types, even those with a high salt content, as well as high temperatures and winds, although during very dry conditions some sources recommend pruning back to one third or one quarter of the foliage to reduce heat stress. For blooms next summer, oleanders should be planted before the end of flowering. If a plant becomes too leggy, prune back to boost bushy growth. Prune just above the leaf nodes, where three leaves come out of the branch, thereby forcing new branching at each of the nodes and getting a round, bushy plant. Begin the first pruning low so the plant gets a good structure at the base. The IOS says the best time to prune them is September to October if you don’t want to cut off the spring growth. As for watering, oleanders manage to thrive along highways where they survive only on rainfall, although extended drought does reduce the growth rate and flower production. Watering at a rate of up to 5 centimeters a week during very dry conditions will encourage continuous flowering and continual growth. The same goes for fertilizing. If the leaves are small and light green, the plants need feeding in early spring and fall. Propagate from cuttings about 10 cm long and remove the lower leaves. The roots will start from the bottom three leaf notes. The remaining upper leaves should be cut to about 3 cm long. The potting mix should be kept moist but not wet and in a mostly sunny place. Results should appear in about two weeks.