Ole! Ole! Oleander!

June 2, 2010 | By | Comments (44)

Red oleander

“Oh, that won’t grow here.” How many times have aspiring gardeners had their hopes dashed by such a blanket statement? The fact is just because you don’t see something growing in your neighborhood doesn’t mean it won’t. Oleander (Nerium oleander) is a good example.

Native to the Mediterranean region, this shrub has so much going for it. It’s evergreen. It’s easy. It’s tough. It offers weeks of beautiful single or double flowers in a huge range of colors, including red, pink, peach, yellow, and white. The only thing that holds it back is tenderness to cold.

Peach oleander

Because many people see oleander growing at the beach, they think it won’t take frost. They are wrong. More than 25 years ago, I bought a small pink oleander at a garden center on Pawley’s Island, South Carolina while on a family vacation. I took it home to Maryland. When I moved to Alabama, that oleander came with me. It’s blooming this very day (see photo below). And I’ve learned how much cold oleanders can really take.

 

Oleander 003

Twenty degrees. That’s how cold it can get without causing any damage to flower buds or foliage. At 10 degrees, flower buds die and leaves get burned. At 0 degrees, the plant will probably die to the ground and then regrow. Because mine grows in a big pot, I take it inside the garage when night temps drop into the teens. But especially hardy selections, such as ‘Hardy Pink’ and ‘Hardy Red,’ do bend the barriers. I’ve seen an established, 10-foot tall, pink oleander in full bloom growing in front of a house in Moundville, Alabama. I know it’s been there for years.

Growing conditions. Other than winter cold, almost nothing bothers oleander. Just about any well-drained soil will do — acid or alkaline. Once established, it’s very drought-tolerant. It also withstands wind and salt spray, which is why it’s a favorite for beach planting. It needs little fertilizer. Give it full sun. Very few pests assault it, except for oleander caterpillars (see below).

 

Oleander caterpillars

Pests. Moths lay eggs on the undersides of the leaves. The eggs hatch into voracious bright orange caterpillars with tufts of black hairs. Severe infestations can defoliate a plant. To prevent this, spray your plant according to label directions with Bt  (Bacillus thuringiensis), a bacterium that is harmless to people, pets, and most insects, but lethal to caterpillars.

Pruning. Oleanders can grow 10-20 feet tall if you let them, so here are some basic pruning guidelines. Prune these shrubs immediately after their flowers fade. This will encourage new, fresh growth and you may get more flowers. Older oleanders may get woody and bare at the bottom. Rejuvenate them by cutting off 1/3 of the oldest trunks at ground level in spring over a three-year period. Don’t want to prune? Buy a dwarf selections, such as ‘Turner’s Carnival.’ It grows only about 4 feet tall.

Where to buy. You’ll often find oleanders for sale in local garden centers and nurseries. Top Tropicals is a good mail-order source.

Isn’t oleander poisonous? Why, yes, the sap is. Despite this, hardly anyone gets poisoned, because the leathery leaves and stems are thoroughly unappetizing, unless you’re an oleander caterpillar. The Grump did hear of Boy Scouts getting poisoned by toasting marshmallows over a campfire using oleander sticks for skewers. My expert advice? Don’t do this.

—-

Thanks to kellyv, mccheek, and cjewell for photos.

COMMENTS

  1. Steve Bender

    Mannie,
    After they finish blooming, shorten each branch by a foot or so. This will encourage denser growth.

    March 20, 2013 at 3:02 pm
  2. Mannie

    I want to use Oleander for privacy screening. I want them to be bushier, and about ten feet tall eventually. My plants are one year old, growing well, about four feet tall. What is the best way to prune to promote the shape I need?
    Thanks!

    March 18, 2013 at 8:04 am
  3. Steve Bender

    Tina,
    The brown leaves were indeed caused by the freeze. However, your plants are still alive. Wait until they start growing again in spring and look for any dead growth. If you see any, prune it out.

    January 25, 2013 at 10:44 am
  4. Tina

    I have several oleanders around my pool. They were planted two years ago and have survived the winter with green leaves until now. I live in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The leaves are brown and crunchy, but the stems are still green. Reading your past posts, I’m wondering if this has been caused by the recent freeze we had, followed by warm temps. I assume since the stems are still green they’ll be okay, but I’m curious what I need to do to ensure they regrow their green leaves and blooms.

    Any suggestions would be most appreciated!

    January 24, 2013 at 4:57 pm
  5. Steve Bender

    Pat,
    Sorry I’ve taken so long to answer, but I’ve been on vacation. I can’t tell you exactly why this happened, but it was most likely due to weather. This may not happen next year.

    October 29, 2012 at 4:50 am
  6. Pat Hughes

    This year my oleander plants are producing some buds but then they drop off. Does anyone know what causes this. They get plenty of sun and are regularly watered.

    October 14, 2012 at 7:08 am
  7. Steve Bender

    Belinda,
    Don’t call it quits just yet. Make sure your plant gets lots of sun. Don’t prune it at all this fall, winter, or next spring. It may surprise you next year!

    October 8, 2012 at 10:54 am
  8. Belinda

    My olenader is 2 years old and about 4.5 feet tall, but never blooms, neighbors have awesome blooms, but for me nothing. (: I thought this was a easy plant to grow. should i just call it quits?

    October 7, 2012 at 2:51 pm
  9. Steve Bender

    Katy,
    It’s normal for some oleander leaves to yellow and fall off at the end of summer, so don’t worry. they’ll be replaced by fresh, green leaves next spring. The pods are seed pods. If you don’t like them, just cut them off.

    September 21, 2012 at 3:12 pm
  10. Kelly

    I live in Ohio and have a potted Oleander with pink blooms. It did well all summer but now that it is fall it is fall the leaves are starting to turn yellow and drop off. We have been getting a lot of rain and this may have something to do with it. I noticed that my plant has these huge pods on the ends of some of the flower stems. Does anyone know what they are? It looks like it might be a huge bloom about to form, but so far they have not opened up.

    September 18, 2012 at 7:17 pm
  11. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Maggy,
    I’d just wash my hands thoroughly and perhaps apply some cortisone cream.

    June 10, 2012 at 3:57 pm
  12. maggy

    What do you use if you get an oleander rash?

    June 10, 2012 at 3:36 pm
  13. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Scott,
    I suggest you grow your plant in a container like I do. That way, you can bring it inside for brief periods in winter when the temperature plummets. From my experience, oleanders suffer leaf burn and stem dieback at about 15 degrees. At 0, they would probably die to the ground and not bloom the following year.

    May 31, 2012 at 3:39 pm
  14. Scott Anderson

    I live in Western Ky. My mother-in-law, who lives in Mississippi, gave me a plant because I thought they were so pretty. We occasionally get at or near 0 degree weather for short periods during the winter. If I mulch the plants during the fall will they do OK?. Will this keep my plant from blooming?

    May 30, 2012 at 3:59 pm
  15. beth boss

    the mystery blue flower that looks like a spider mum/allium isn’t a flower, its a garden stake. they are called everlasting alliums. you can find them online but it’s around $35 for a set of two. oh and can i have my million in unmarked money lol.

    May 27, 2012 at 10:47 pm
  16. Dona Ciano

    I have 9 oleander trees growing in my yard and have been here for over 15 yrs. no one has died at my home, the dogs don’t bother them and the cardinals love to nest in them. I suggest you let them grow and enjoy them, dont’t eat them. They are beautiful and trouble free.

    May 23, 2012 at 5:50 am
  17. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Nancy,
    Did you prune your plants last summer or fall? This might account for the lack of flowers. Also make sure they’re getting plenty of sun.

    May 15, 2012 at 7:58 am
  18. Nancy Pierce

    bought an oleander and a hydranga last year, they had blooms. This spring there is nothing, live in Florida. We had almost no winter. Hydranga has green leaves but no flowers, oleander has some yellow leaves but no flowers. What can I add to my soil to help get flowers?

    May 14, 2012 at 3:08 pm
  19. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Yes. After 3 years all of the trunks will have been pruned. And yes, prune them off at the ground.

    April 7, 2012 at 7:59 am
  20. Lauren

    When you say to prune 1/3 of the main trunks over three years, does that mean that by the end of the three years, you’ve pruned all of the trunks (1/3 each year for 3 years)? Also, just to be sure, you mean to prune all the way to the ground 1/3 of the trunks, not to prune off 1/3 of the trunk, right?

    April 5, 2012 at 1:20 pm
  21. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Donna,
    I get the impression that your oleanders looked pretty fried right now. Don’t feel bad — some in Birmingham don’t look too good either. The problem is, some oleanders (like mine) are hardier than others. Another factor is unpredictable winters. If you get a frigid blast of Arctic air following an unseasonably mild period, you get damage. The good news is that your oleanders may grow back from the roots. What I would do now is scratch the bark (use a knife to do this, not your fingernail, because the sap is poisonous) and see if there is any green underneath. Cut your shrubs back to the topmost point where you can find green.

    February 27, 2012 at 12:06 pm
  22. Donna

    We live in southern part of virginia and it is not too cold this year. We see how our neighbors and our community parks have oleanders and they look pretty good. We thought ours should be survived as well. Do you think I should prune them or leave them alone? Thank you for your help

    February 27, 2012 at 12:01 am
  23. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Donna,
    Where do you live? It sounds like winter damage. Oleanders may not be hardy where you live. You can tell if a branch is alive or not by scratching the bark. If you find green underneath, it’s alive. If you find brown, it’s dead.

    February 24, 2012 at 11:23 am
  24. Donna

    I bought 10 oleander plants last summer. They are all about 2 feet tall. They looked healthy and flowers at the time I planted them. However, they were all completely brown and dried over the winter. Please help me! I am not sure if they are all dead? Should I prune them to the ground? Any advice would be appreciated.

    February 23, 2012 at 3:00 pm
  25. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Mark,
    Here are some suggestions.
    1. Don’t prune very much in fall. If you do, you’ll cut off flower buds that will bloom next spring. Do most pruning immediately after flowering ends.
    2. Oleander needs as much sun as you can give it to bloom its best.
    3. While oleander does tolerant drought, for extended blooming you need to keep it actively growing throughout the summer by regular watering and fertilizing.
    4. There are lots of different oleanders out there. Some bloom longer than others. Unfortunately, it usually turns out that the ones that bloom the longest aren’t that cold-hardy. To help you pick the right one for you, contact the International Oleander Society, located (conveniently for you) in Galveston, TX. Here’s a link: http://www.oleander.org/

    August 10, 2011 at 2:51 pm
  26. Mark

    Live in Dallas area. Oleanders (pink) planted 5-6 years ago. Pruned every fall, fertilized evry spring. Only blooms spring months. Any suggestions to increase blooms into summer and fall?

    August 8, 2011 at 5:27 pm
  27. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Tonya,
    I suspect your oleanders were damaged by cold weather that followed mild weather. Many semi-tropical shrubs like oleanders suffered a similar fate. They will come back from the roots, but I can’t promise they will bloom this year. If they don’t leaf out soon, I would cut them to the ground.

    April 21, 2011 at 2:38 pm
  28. Tonya

    Hello,we have about a dozen oleanders in our front yard, they have done extremely well for the past 6 years that we have lived here. It is end of April and they are dead looking! Nothing has changed that we know of? Im not exacty sure when they bloomed last year, but it seems so much sooner than this, help

    April 18, 2011 at 6:42 pm
  29. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Mickey,
    Are all your oleanders the same color and variety and planted the same time? If not, that might explain the size difference. If they are all the same kind and age, then there is something wrong with the growing conditions around the two smaller ones — probably the soil. Check to see whether they are planted on top of rock, concrete, and some other hard layer.

    March 24, 2011 at 3:27 pm
  30. MICKEY

    WE HAVE OLEANDERS IN OUR BACK YARD TWO OF THE END OLEANDERS HAVE NOT REACHED OVER 3 FEET THEY ARE TWO YEARS OLD THE OTHERS ARE AROUND 6 FEET TALL. THEY ARE THE LARGER OLEANDERS BECAUSE WE WANTED A WALL OF OLEANDERS IN OUR BACK YARD. MY NEIGHBOR JUST RECENTLY PLANTED OLEANDERS AND HERS ARE TALLER THEN THESE SHE JUST PLANTED HERS ABOUT 6 MONTHS AGO. WHAT CAN WE DO TO MAKE THEM GROW TALLER. WE HAVE FERTILIZED ETC.

    March 22, 2011 at 6:13 pm
  31. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    The sap of numerous plants can cause a reaction in many people, particularly if the sap is milky. That description fits oleander. I have an oleander and try to keep the sap off my skin when I prune, because it is irritating.

    December 6, 2010 at 10:34 am
  32. Sensitive gardener in cold climate

    I am having a reaction (rash) to one of my 3 poisonous plants which overwinter indoors. My oleander has mealy bugs which I regularly squish/spray with rubbing alcohol and dish soap. The 2 other plants are Elephant Ears, which are weeping oxalic acid, and Australian Tree Ferns. Has no one reacted to sap/ presence of Oleanders? Rash on upper chest/neck/face.
    Thanks for your input.

    November 29, 2010 at 2:33 pm
  33. Grumpy Gardener aka His Excellency

    This also goes for elephants, giraffes, elk, and bison.

    November 23, 2010 at 9:31 am
  34. Geri

    If you have horses you dont want Oleanders anywhere where they can get in reach of it by everything that I have read.

    November 18, 2010 at 9:42 pm
  35. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Eric,
    From my experience, if you prune them now, you’ll greatly reduce the flowering next spring.

    September 16, 2010 at 2:14 pm
  36. Eric @ flavorspaces

    Thanks for the great info on oleanders. I have one that has some very bare bases and I wasn’t sure how to fix that. Once they stop blooming is it safe to prune or wait until the spring? Thanks in advance.

    September 16, 2010 at 12:34 pm
  37. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Ben,
    Don’t prune them now or they’re guaranteed not to bloom next spring. If they fail to bloom next spring, I would prune to the ground one-third of the oldest and woodiest trunks at that time. Do this for two more years. The rejuvenated growth that will result should bloom better.

    September 7, 2010 at 4:41 pm
  38. Ben

    Oleanders on my rental property have not bloomed in years. What time of year should they be pruned? I live in southern Arizona.

    September 5, 2010 at 4:10 pm
  39. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    An oleander that doesn’t bloom is usually due to one of two things. Either it’s not getting enough sun or it’s being pruned at the wrong time.

    June 24, 2010 at 1:48 pm
  40. K Henry

    Why does my oleander not bloom?

    June 23, 2010 at 8:30 pm
  41. Henry H.

    Classic Darwin Award for ya.
    My buddy had a few until he found out they were poisonous. He has kids so he got concerned…..
    How did he get rid of em?????
    He burned em….

    June 3, 2010 at 4:30 pm
  42. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Yes, the sap is poisonous, but there are very few cases of people being poisoned, because nobody eats it. Many ornamental plants used inside and around the house are poisonous as well (azalea, mountain laurel, mayapple, philodendron, castor bean, yew, etc.), but people plant them anyway.

    June 3, 2010 at 10:31 am
  43. karen

    Oleander is a common hedge/screen planting back in CA where I hailed from. I never had problems from contact with the plant or its sap when I would cut it back. Deer emphatically do not eat it because it is poisonous to them.

    June 3, 2010 at 7:25 am
  44. Jean

    I had an oleander. Beautiful but I had been warned over and over about how poisonous they are so I disposed of mine carefully.It was a shame but after the dire warnings I wouldnt even touch it.

    June 3, 2010 at 7:14 am

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