August 23, 2010

The Big O


Hawaiian native and prisoner of New York City, Frogma, has posted pix of some of her fellow Hawaiian natives. These natives are not the high school classmates that Frogma went back to visit recently, but natives of the beaches, meadows, and forests of Hawaii. They are the flowers that are indigenous to the islands.

As botany is not one of my strengths, I didn't recognize most of the flowers until I came to one that every Californian knows - the Oleander.

Photo by Phrogma

Talk about an immigrant success story!

Oleanders must be happier, more established, and better known in California than they are anywhere else - even Hawaii. They moved here many years ago, put down roots, and set about populating the state, literally from one end to the other.

They didn't do this on their own, though. They had help.

Their tenacious hardiness soon impressed many Californians, but most notably they impressed Caltrans - the bureaucracy of highway, biway, and bridge builders that is the de facto governing body of California.

Your state may have a highway department, but it is nothing like Caltrans.

Caltrans has an annual budget that surpasses the GDP of most third world countries.

Governators may govern, legislators and judges may serve their terms, lobbyists may lobby, lawyers litigate, and councils counsel, but, they are all mortal. In time, they all fade away, are indicted, or retire to the White House.

But Caltrans is forever.

Eternal. Immutable. Sacred.

In a state whose culture and economy revolve around the car more than anywhere else, Caltrans is the rock (and gravel and concrete) upon which Californians depend.

And if Caltrans embraces you, champions you, advances your star, you too shall become eternal, immutable, and sacred.

And so it has been with the Oleander. India has the cow, California the Oleander.

Caltrans has planted vast, endless colonnades of Oleander that parade for hundreds of miles down the medians of our freeways, the Niles of our commerce.

Oleanders By The Overpass, Alas

Because as it turns out, Oleanders are the perfect vehicle for shepherding vehicles.

They are tough, robust, require almost no water, and grow quicker than rumor. At night, they block the glaring headlights of oncoming traffic. A stand of Oleander can absorb a wayward pickup truck that hurtles into the median at 80 miles an hour, wrestle the truck to the ground, and recover within a year or so with no human intervention. Guardrails and concrete barriers are much more expensive to plant, seldom flower, and are not nearly so adept at healing themselves.

The only thing about Oleanders that puzzles me is the fuss people make about them being poisonous. I mean, it's not as if Oleanders sneak up and bite you. For Oleanders to be poisonous, you have to eat them.

And who goes around eating shrubbery?

People make such a big deal about this. Whenever the conversation drifts to Oleanders (I know, I'm going to the wrong parties), the first thing everyone says is, "But you know, they're poisonous."

Just like your mom used to warn you about poking your eye out.

I think this may actually be one of those urban myths, though. I scoured Google looking for examples of people who had actually died from eating Oleander. Almost every reference comes back to the same anonymous group of 'some kids' who roasted marshmallows at a cookout on Oleander sticks and who all died.  Nowhere are those kids or their scout troup or their Kiwanis club identified. I think this is just another case of you'll poke your eye out.

The other alleged example of Oleander poisoning refers to a bunch of off-duty marines who were so drunk they stopped on a freeway median one night to have a cookout and, again, did the marshmallow en brochette thing, using Oleanders for the brochettes. These guys apparently didn't die but got very sick. This story also sounds bogus to me, because if those marines were drunk enough to be cooking out in the middle of a freeway, their morning-after malaise had nothing to do with Oleander. Trust me on this, but don't ask how I know.

I know this is a sailing blog and that Oleanders have nothing to do with sailing. But, don't blame me.

Frogma started it.



  1. I heard it was hotdogs rather than marshmallows. Urban legends with a core of truth - they are plenty poisonous and contain several toxins. Just stripping leaves or playing with the flowers (as I did as a kid) can get enough sap on a person to make them sick, but serious problems are only likely if someone ingests the sap.

    But considering how ubiquitous they are, there are less than a thousand reports a year of poisoning, so I guess the stories have served a purpose in deterring kids from roasting weenies on them.

  2. I wonder about this contact thing, too.

    We have quite a few of them growing in both our front and back yards, and most of them are 15-feet high now.

    I am exceedingly sensitive to poison oak, and once had to run to the doctor's when my arm started swelling from poison oak exposure, but I've never been bothered by touching Oleanders at all.

    Unless, wait a minute - do you think they make me write like this?

  3. Soon they're gonna be in bloom up in Annandale

  4. California tumbles into the sea
    That'll be the day I go
    Back to Annandale.

    Curiously, there is another Annandale I used to pass through on bike rides and very close to one of the lakes where Mr. Tillerman used to sail Sunfish, I think.

    No Oleanders there, though.

  5. Yes, up off of Rt. 31, or somewhere
    around there. Spruce Run is where Tillerman used to sail. I always thought that was the Annandale that Donald was referring to, since he went to South Brunswick High School.

  6. What fun!

    I do feel like I should point out that I'm not actually a "Hawaiian native" - Native Hawaiian being a term that's generally reserved for people whose ancestors came to the islands in the Polynesian migrations.

    But like many other transplants (in fact, like many of the flowers I showed), I did put down some strong roots growing up there. It's so wonderful to get back there every now & then & nourish those roots - and with this latest trip, travelling on my own, indulging every silly nostalgic whim I wanted to & yep, taking pictures every step of the way, being able to share those recollections on my blog has really been extending the enjoyment!

  7. Actually, in doing my extensive research for this post, I couldn't pin down whether a botanist would consider the Oleander a Hawaiian native either.

    They seem to be indigenous to Morocco (Oleanders, not botanists), northern Africa, and the Med, so maybe they were brought to Hawaii by people just as they were brought to California.

    Is there a botanist in the house?

  8. Non-native, and introduced after Western contact with the islands, according to this site on popular lei flower that I found while I was writing my "Na Pua" post.

  9. Ya gotta hand it to Caltrans -- they really did find the perfect plant for median landscaping. It's so utilitarian, and beautiful, too. How in the world does a government bureaucracy end up making such a great decision?

    Only problem is, every time I go to California, I end up humming that darned song.

  10. Yes there's gas in the car

  11. EscapeVelocity8/24/10, 4:22 AM

    We used to try to convince the kid next door's little brother to eat the leaves, but he was just pesky, not stupid.

  12. I swear, now everywhere I go I think I'm seeing Oleander. I gotta get a grip.

  13. I don't remember seeing any in New Jersey, but, at the time, I wouldn't have known an Oleander from a colander.

    Like me, they are sensitive to freezing. About once every five years we'll have a few nights of below freezing temps (oh, the humanity!), and they will sometimes drop their leaves and appear to die (they can be so mellodramatic). Luckily, ours have always come back.

  14. One of the marinas at Elephant Butte actually has oleanders growing out of the styrofoam blocks that float the docks. So there's your sailing connection!

  15. Bless you, Carol Anne.

    I've been taking a lot of heat, lately, for blogging about flowers.

    But, it's a dry heat.

  16. Here, try some olianders, you must eat olianders....

    reminds me of Ray Bradbury's story "Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar!"

  17. and yes, it's oli anders. In Hawaiian 'Oli'oli means "enjoyment" ;^)

  18. Ah! can I introduce Caltrans to kudzu, milfoil, asian carp, zebra mussels, scotch broom...

    ok ok sorry! I won't go off into the abyss. I'm very happy this story has a happy ending. or, non-ending.

  19. Hey O dock!
    I'm in Berkeley too, and just started a blog about plants (toxic, edible, local, and medical). I was wondering if I could use your perfect pic of median plantings for my upcoming oleander post (with credit of course!). Oleander poisoning is totally legit, btw: for example, the American Journal of Forensic Medicine just published an article about two vegans who got lost hiking with nothing to eat, and died from eating a whole mess of oleander leaves. But you have to eat a fair bit to get seriously sick, and the toxin (oleandrin) doesn't absorb through skin. The boy scout hotdog/marshmallow myth is bunk though--snopes did a piece on it and apparently people have been telling the same story for 200 years! Anyway, please email or come visit if you'd be up for sharing the pic. Thanks for the great post!

  20. Freaky. I just got an alert that someone had yet again commented on this post. How nice.

  21. Andrea, thanks for stopping by O Dock, and for the nice words.

    You can use the photo, but, please, don't credit me. I swiped it from Google images and now I can't find the site where it was originally posted.

    In the inexplicable logic of the Google, the purloined copy of the photo that I posted is now the first image to appear when you search for images of Oleander.

    Good luck with the blog. That path where you found all the edible roadside attractions is the same one we walk when we stay on our boat.

    Baydog, a blog post is forever.

  22. Thanks bunches for the follow-up! I'll be conscientious and say I found it with you but don't know the photographer. Between oleanders and Flemish coils, you're en route to being iconic for a robust collection of things. Happy sailing!