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Oleander - Kounopitsa, north west Crete
West Crete Journal, August 2005

Oleander

Origin: Mediterranean, Middle East
Nerium oleander

Oleander is an evergreen ornamental shrub growing up to 4 metres feet high with beautiful white, pink or red flowers in spring and summer. The leaves are similar to those of olive and bay trees, and the flowers have five petals and resemble a tiny rose.

It originates from the Mediterranean and the Middle East, although it can now be found as an ornamental plant in many parts of the world. It grows in sandy and chalky places with full sun, especially in the beds of Mediterranean riverbeds that remain dry most of the year. It thrives in hot, mild climates and tolerates considerable drought, poor drainage and high salt content in the soil. In Crete, because goats will not eat the plant and it is so tolerant of poor soils, it is commonly used as a decorative highway screen.

Although beautiful and with a sweet aroma, all parts of the plant are highly poisonous to humans and other animals - so much so that simply stirring a cup of tea with a twig while on a picnic claimed a human life. The powdered wood is used in Europe to kill rats, and humans have been poisoned by inhaling the smoke from its burning wood. Children should be cautioned against eating the leaves and flowers, prunings and dead leaves should be kept away from hay or other animal feed, and the wood should not be used for barbecue fires or skewers.

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