With its blossoms of pink or white, this toxic and tenacious shrub of ill-repute dates back to ancient times. But is it really the hell flower it’s claimed to be?
It dallies near the sea. Slumbers in riverbeds. Sprouts naturally on roadsides. Lurks in the lost cities of old civilizations and pops up unexpectedly in big cities. It can be seen along dusty paths, in the gardens of rustic coffeehouses, on mountain slopes, at the brink of a precipice, between garden and vineyard, on the verge of a field. Grabbing a foothold wherever it can, it rises as milestones along highways and byways. Fearing no season, it retains its leaves even in winter. Come summer it bursts crazily into bloom with flaming pink blossoms. Many look, but none touch. Its name? Oleander.
Green all year round, growing as high as five meters, holding its head high in even the most torrid climates, it is a highly toxic tree.
PHOENIX OF FLOWERS
Oleander, which takes many names such as Laurel Rose and Rose Bay depending on where it grows, is known scientifically as ‘Nerium oleander’. Derived from the Arabic ‘Shejeret-ul-zakkûm’, its Turkish name ‘zakkum’ is synonymous with poison in the vernacular.
But despite a dubious past dating back to antiquity under sundry names, it is a small, innocent shrub with pink or white flowers.
Or, in the West, a member of the dogbane family which, with its indescribably heady scent, springs up autochthonously all along the Mediterranean coast starting from Portugal, as well as in riverbeds in Syria and western and southern Anatolia. Known for its resistance to drought and its ability to grow in all kinds of soil, phoenix-like it rises green again even from its own ashes. It grows indigenously in Turkey as in other Mediterranean countries, making an attractive and ostentatious showing with its bountiful blossoms in the parks and gardens of the earth’s hot climes. And where the climate is not conducive to its growth, it is cultivated in greenhouses, catching hold under any conditions. Even in the harshest winter it never loses its thick and leathery, spear-shaped opposite leaves. On its pink and white blossoms, which never fade all summer long, the fuzzy stamen is attached to the thickened stigma of the pistil. And its poisonous fruit, which resembles a capsule encased in a long narrow pod, contains a large number of tufted seeds, whose affinity for the wind is perhaps what enables oleander to exist independently of cultivation. The leaves of the oleander contain resin, tannin and glucose, as well as a glycoside by the name of oleandrin, which is what makes it toxic.
A BANEFUL FLOWER
Oleander, which has spawned a number of curses and other derogatory expressions of unknown provenance, is ubiquitous around the ruins of ancient cities, springing up naturally along streams, in riverbeds and on mountain slopes, as well as in the arid soil along roads and paths, even the grey avenues of today’s big cities. Owing to their toxicity no doubt, its evergreen leaves neither fade, nor does anyone ever consider picking them. Besides the familiar mainly pink and white species found in the Mediterranean countries, there are several tropical species of oleander as well, some of which are aromatic. Oleander lives in our midst completely oblivious to the fact that, together with the hybrids, there are 500 species of it recognized in the literature, that the French National Collection alone contains up to 230 species, and that special clubs and societies have been founded on its behalf all over the world. It serves as a hedge along the busiest avenues and highway meridians. It blooms even when unwatered, sprucing up our concrete garden cities. Not only that but its flowers deck phaetons on islands completely surrounded by water. Its dense flowers that blossom in June and bloom all summer long are not for drying between the pages of a book but for pinning on the breast in celebration of life! But what about its victims? Is it always deadly? Numerous legends could be recounted concerning oleander, known to be a bane since the earliest times. On his Persian campaign, several of Alexander the Great’s horses keeled over dead from toxic oleander leaves tossed in the water by the defeated troops on retreat. And most of the soldiers who ate meat roasted on skewers made of stripped oleander branches were unable to take part in the battle.
But there are also those that are impervious to oleander’s poison. Danaid butterflies, for example, suck the nectar of the oleander, which they then store in special cells. Birds that feed on these butterflies exhibit symptoms of violent diarrhea and vomiting, and never again attack butterflies of that species and color. A species of grasshopper that inhabits the Middle Eastern countries also stores oleander nectar in its cells, which it sprays at its enemies in time of danger.
Whether or not the toxic oleander, recognized worldwide as a poison, will ever be transformed into a miraculous cure is anybody’s guess. But one thing is certain: those ancient cities of the Ionic, Doric and Corinthian orders lived in harmony with the pink blossoms of this ‘baneful’ flower. For it can survive despite all obstacles, boldly bending over a river eager to wash it away, magnanimously bestowing the elixir of life on a stone cottage atop a bald mountain. Unconditional companion of him who, taking its presence as a sign, makes a home.
What sort of hell flower is this that life fairly flourishes in its presence?