Galveston is called “The Oleander City,” and particularly during the spring and summer
months, our attention is drawn to the oleander and its unique status among the residents
and visitors of the city. It’s during this time that the International Oleander Society hosts its annual festival here, featuring “the colors of the island.”
During the festival visitors are invited to view the many varieties of oleanders found on Galveston
Island, and are given the opportunity to purchase unusual varieties of oleanders, as well as to enjoy photo exhibitions and competitions. At that time of year, the plants themselves have shed the winter doldrums and are delighting us with their flashy performance, merrily swaying in the breezes, and a virtual dancing cornucopia of floral abundance.
Historical research indicates that the oleander was mentioned in writings as early as 4000 BC and
continued to be cited throughout history. In the Bible, it may have been known as the Rose of Jericho.
Murals of oleanders are shown in books on and accounts of Ancient Rome. The Greeks believed that the oleander was named for the Greek God Nereus, and gardens of oleanders were maintained so the blooms could be used to decorate altars constructed in his honor.The oleander is considered a native plant in India and Japan, but its popularity encompassed a large portion of the globe from North Africa, Israel, Syria, and Lebanon to the European nations of France, Spain, and England. Also admired by the Dutch, a painting of an oleander became one of Van Gogh’s masterpieces.
Information gleaned from a publication of the International Oleander Society, asserts that the first oleanders came to Galveston from Jamaica in 1841. Joseph Osterman, a prominent merchant, brought them aboard his sailing ship to his wife, and his sisterin-law, Mrs. Isadore Dyer.
Finding these plants easy to cultivate, she shared them with her friends and neighbors. The familiar double-pink variety that she grew has been named for her. Soon these plants were growing throughout the city.
It was noted that the oleanders in full bloom made a significant contribution to the overall beauty of the city. Oleanders flourished in these early days and were found capable of withstanding the subtropical weather, alkaline soil, and salt spray. Therefore, it was logical for oleanders to be chosen as one of the predominant plants to be used in the replanting
of the city following the 1900 hurricane and grade raising that covered the existing vegetation with sand.
The Women’s Health Protective Association was charged with the mission to beautify the island and improve the health conditions of the city. They planted oleanders along Broadway, the entrance to the city, and on 25th Street, the path to the beachfront.
By 1906 the organization was operating its own nursery. The group’s planting continued for many years up and down city streets, in yards, around public buildings, and on school grounds until eventually over 2,500 oleanders were planted throughout the city. The whole city
became a garden of oleanders.
As early as 1908, an editorial in the Galveston Tribune observed that the oleander was emblematic of Galveston and that people came from all over to see them. In 1910, The Galveston Daily News reported that Galveston was known throughout the world as “The Oleander City,”
and in 1916, an article in a national publication named it one of the most beautiful cities in the South.
The oleander is easy to grow and maintain, needing only lots of sun and adequate moisture. Generally it does not require much in the way of fertilization - no muss, no fuss with this plant. It comes in many varieties, a wide range of colors, and blooms profusely.
Also easy to propagate, especially during the warmer months, roots will grow from cuttings placed in a rooting medium or in plain water. A hardy shrub, the occasional attack of common aphids, mealy-bugs or scale can be easily controlled and should they make an appearance,
those pesky galls may be cut off with a sharp knife.
The most frequently asked questions about oleanders involve pruning. According to The International Oleander Society, the main reason people prune their oleanders is to shape them and force more branching which in turn creates more flower clusters. They recommend pruning oleanders around September into early October.
Pruning any later in the year will cut off spring growth. Oleanders are very strong and can take a good amount of pruning. Don’t be afraid to cut them back to whatever base height you may
want, especially if you feel they have lost control. Please note that all parts of the oleander are toxic and must not be ingested. It’s important to always sterilize pruning tools after use.
Common Oleander Challenges
Sooty Mold caused by material left by aphids, scale, mealy bugs, whiteflies. (Treat with products containing neem oil to control the pests)
Oleander Aphids that appear in early spring to feed on young growth. (Spray large infestations with Orthene Systemic Insect Control)
Black Scale is brown or black crusty bumps appearing on branches, leaves, twigs. (Spray with Orthene Systemic Insect Control and dormant oil)
Oleander Caterpillar is the larval stage of a purple moth with greenish/black wings. (Apply Orthene Systemic Insect Control or Liquid Sevin) Bacterial Gall appears as wart-like spongy cankers, leaves may be distorted and yellow. (Prune out and destroy stems below the galls)
Witches Broom are abnormal growths at the end of branch tips that turn brown and die. (Prune and discard affected areas)
The Mexican Oleander
In recent years, a variety of oleander has become popular among local gardeners. The Mexican oleander is a large shrub or small tree, depending on the amount of pruning and shaping done by the gardener. The blooms are usually yellow, but there are types with white or orange flowers.
The Mexican oleander is native to tropical America, notably Mexico, Cuba, and Columbia. The botanical name of thevetia was adopted in honor of a French monk, Andre Thevet, who is credited with its discovery while traveling in South America. Note that this variety is also poisonous and not to be ingested.