Houseplants Poisonous Plants Tropical Plants

Please Don’t Eat the Oleander!

Don’t even think of eating any part of an oleander. Photo: Clip Art Library, Wpclipart & Pngitem, montage

Apparently, the latest “miracle cure” for COVID-19 is oleandrin, an extract from the oleander plant (Nerium oleander). It’s being promoted by American businessman Mike Lindell of Phoenix Biotechnology, a company that produces the extract. He is said to have claimed it to be “the miracle of all time” and that it has been tested on more than 1,000 subjects, but scientists say no such study exists. 

The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases did do a preliminary test of the extract against COVID-19, but abandoned further research following inconclusive results.

Pink oleander in a pot.
Oleander grown in a pot. Photo: Tangopaso, Wikimedia Commons

That isn’t to say oleandrin might not have valuable medical uses, as the oleander plant it derives from is highly toxic and many toxic compounds, when thoroughly diluted, do have useful medicinal properties. However, I’m concerned that if people come to believe oleandrin is a COVID-19 cure, they might take things into their own hands and try to treat themselves directly with parts of the oleander plant.

Collage of oleander flowers in different colors.
Some of the colors of oleander. Photo: gardenplusdherynia

So, be forewarned that the oleander, grown as garden shrub or tree in the South (USDA hardiness zones 8 to 12) and a houseplant in colder climates, is extremely poisonous in all parts: flowers, leaves, roots and even its sticky white sap. It has been called “possibly the most toxic of all ornamental plants” and even ingesting a single dry leaf can kill a child. It should be kept out of the reach of children, pets and farm animals and if you prune it or repot it, always wear gloves. 

The oleander contains many toxic elements, including cardiac glycosides, oleandrin, oleondroside, saponins, digitoxigenin, nerioside and other toxins, some of which are yet to be identified.

Recognizing an Oleander

Botanical illustration of Nerium oleander showing flowers, leaves and seed capsules.
Botanical illustration of the oleander (Nerium oleander). Ill.: Jean-Pierre Redouté

Oleander is a upright-growing shrub or small tree. Outdoors, it can reach up to 25 feet (7.5 m) in height, although there are dwarf varieties. Indoors, it rarely reaches 10 feet (3 m) in height. It bears narrow, pointed, leathery, dark green leaves with a prominent mid-vein borne. They are produced in pairs or whorls of three. Some varieties have variegated foliage. 

The flowers appear in clusters at the end of the branches. They are 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5 cm) in diameter with 5 broad petals (in single flowers) and a long tube behind the flower. They are often sweetly scented and can be pink, red, white or yellow. Seeds, when produced, appear from paired narrow seed capsules and have “parachutes” similar to those of dandelion seeds that carry them away on the wind.

I have nothing against growing oleanders as ornamental plants, but to even consider using them at home as a medical treatment is foolhardy in the extreme.

So, basically, my message is: please don’t eat the oleander!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

4 comments on “Please Don’t Eat the Oleander!

  1. Oh my! I had not heard of this. When I write about toxic plants I sometimes make fun of the oleander because so many people are afraid of them, while there are several other plants that are significantly more toxic. I still would not recommend eating the oleander either!

  2. Thank you for the warning because let’s face it – we need it.

  3. I love these plants. They grow like weeds in South Texas and it seems everyone has them. A few years back, some guys were grilling burgers or dogs and one of them decided that the pile of freshly pruned Oleander branches would add a nice woody taste to the meat. Well it did that, along with killing two of them. I have two of these in my front yard landscape and I am always careful when pruning them. Beautiful but deadly.

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