Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Horticulture News
Oleander - Widely Adaptable and Pretty Too
It's abundant and spectacular blooms and wide adaptability through out the state of Florida make the oleander well known to most people. The oleander (Nerium oleander) thrives under difficult conditions which in addition to it's showy and long lasting floral displays has ensured it's popularity. This large shrub is native to the Mediterranean region and grows abundantly in the Holy Land around fresh water streams. For this reason, it is thought to be the "rose" mentioned in the Bible.
Oleander tolerates a wide range of soil types and can also withstand high levels of pollution and saline conditions. For these reasons, oleanders are widely planted along highways and coastal areas. In addition, this large fast growing shrub is quite drought tolerant making it ideal for low maintenance landscapes.
A stiffly upright form characterizes this shrub. Mature size can range from 3 -20 feet tall depending on the variety. It's many ascending grayish green stems support long lance shaped evergreen leaves that are borne in whorls of three. It bears an abundance of fragrant showy blooms that are produced in clusters at the ends of the branches throughout the warmer months. A number of varieties are available with different growth habits and flower sizes and colors. Oleander flowers are available in a range of bright cheerful colors in shades of red, pink, white, and cream. At least one cultivar has variegated foliage.
While the oleander is too large and course for use as a foundation planting in most cases, it makes an excellent hedge. Some of the dwarf varieties are well suited if a low growing hedge is desired. It can also be used as a windbreak, or a privacy screen at the rear or sides of a property. It tolerance of difficult conditions and a wide range of soil types make it excellent for such applications. Oleanders can also be used effectively as accent plants to add color to an otherwise drab background. The smaller growing forms can be used in containers or planters, while the larger types can be pruned to make an attractive small tree.
Although they can withstand drought and perform well on a wide range of soil types, oleanders require full sun for compact growth and free flowering. Oleanders are easy to grow and will get by with minimal applications of a complete fertilizer. Where they are grown in well fertilized lawns, they will require little or no additional fertilization.
Over zealous pruning to maintain oleander hedges can result in the reduced output of blooms. For other uses where the plant is allowed to assume it's natural form, pruning is best restricted to selective removal of stems to maintain plant vigor and floral production. In this case, up to one third of the oldest canes should be removed annually. These should be cut off at the base. Where a heavy informal screen is desired, plant oleanders 5 feet apart.
Oleanders are relatively inexpensive at most nurseries. They can also be easily propagated from hard or soft wood cuttings at almost any time of the year.
Oleanders are occasionally defoliated by the black and orange furry oleander caterpillar for which the oleander is the preferred larval food. The oleander caterpillar metamorphoses into the strikingly beautiful red, white and blue oleander moth, known to some as the "Uncle Sam" moth. If these pests become too voracious and cause problems, they can be easily controlled with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) sprays in addition to several common insecticides. Other pests that may be sometimes affect oleanders are scales and root rots.
Be aware that all parts of the plant are quite poisonous. There have been several cases in Florida and elsewhere, where unsuspecting people have become quite ill after using the long straight branches for cooking marshmallows and hot-dogs. Even the smoke from burning oleander leaves and stems is poisonous and oleander clippings should not be disposed of in this way. Despite this drawback, the colorful and widely adapted oleander can make a positive contribution in many landscape situations. Good luck and good gardening.
Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service. Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975, e-mail - firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 863-674-4092 or 863-983-1598. You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle. Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.
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