Oleander or Rose Bay

(Nerium oleander) Very fragrant, a quality much apprecitaed in Victorian times, when it was often the fashion to have an oleander kept at the foot of the stairs in the front hall, so that its perfume could pervade the whole house (Kingsbury. 1967). But this is a highly poisonous plant, the leaves and stems of which can be dangerous to children and animals. Eating a single leaf, or even eating meat skewered with oleander during cooking has been recorded as deadly (Tampiom). It was even thought at one time that the very perfume was toxic, and having the plant in a closed room might poison a person (Kingsbury. 1967). It is used in India for homicidal and suicidal purposes, and also for abortions (P A Simpson); it is known there as 'horse-killer' (Folkard), from the Sanskrit name for the shrub, something of which they have been aware since ancient times, for we are told that during the Persian campaign, Alexander's army lost horses that had fed on the shrub, and some soldiers, too - those that had grilled their meat on skewers made from the wood. Gerard described it in the usual way: "the flowers and leaves kill dogs, asses, and very many other foure footed beasts", though it is said on the Greek island of Chios that the leaves are so bitter that even the goats cannot eat them (Argenti & Rose).

Gerard finished his sentence with "but if men drinke them in wine they are a remedy against the bitings of Serpents", better still if rue is added. Wishful thinking, but there have been medicinal uses. The active principle, oleandrin, has an effect like digitalis, and is used in the treatment of heart conditions (Thomson. 1976). There is, too, a wart cure involving the plant on the Greek islands, but this is a charm cure; on Chios, the practice is to put a leaf on each wart. Then, in the wane of the moon, the leaves are put under a stone in a river-bed. The patient has to go away without looking back (Argenti & Rose).

There are examples from North Africa of its use as a protective plant. The box in which a Moroccan bride was transported, on the back of a mule, to the bridegroom's house, was made of oleander twigs, to avert the evil eye. For the same purpose, twigs would be put between the horns of ploughing oxen, and at the bottom of stacks of reaped corn. At Midsummer, such twigs would be hung on their fig trees. The so-called "sultan of the oleander", a stalk with a cluster of four pairs of leaves round the stem, is always endowed with "baraka" (protective power), but the power is greatest when it has been cut immediately before midsummer. When brought into the house, the branches must not touch the ground, for that would make them lose their "baraka" (Westermarck. 1905). In cases of sickness thought to have been caused by an evil eye, the leaves are burned, and the patient lets the smoke pass underneath his clothes, inhaling it as it comes through. Written upon, the leaves serve as charms, and pens are made of the wood. Anyone who is ill from an attack by "juun" has to be rubbed for two months and twenty days with oil of oleander, mixed with various medicines, and to be beaten with oleander twigs on either side of the body (Wester-marck. 1926). The origin myth recorded in Morocco states that the shrub is the child of Fatima, the daughter of the prophet. Her husband took a second wife. When she saw her coming into the house she spat on the ground in contempt, and the oleander sprang up at once. Since then it is said "a rival is bitter as the oleander" (Legey).

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