Meditation on Oleander

Born a little soon, raised on too much moon,
learned to get by on “Leave me alone.”
Be the restless one, be the burning son.
Then you filled your hands with oleander and
all the strippings of pride gone astray.
All that secret work, all those pretty words
that still don’t hold you
Now you spend your days in the dappled rays
of his love like a fern in the shade.
In a world of green no one’s ever seen
and oh it holds you.

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Nerium oleander

“Oleander” is a song on Kris Delmhorst’s new album, Shotgun Singer, that she apparently recorded entirely on her own in a friend’s house up in the Berkshires. It is a delicate and dark piece of chamber pop; the melody is spare, with space between the notes, but the overall effect is claustrophobic. The cello largely carries the melody, but a piano contributes strategically placed single notes and an effects-laden guitar adds a repeated phrase.

She sings very close to the microphone, very quietly, so that the breath of the room itself is part of the delivery. The music makes clear the ambivalence of the lyrics. In three short stanzas Delmhorst describes a transition in someone’s life, a change that takes place after filling one’s hands with oleander.

Oleander is generally accepted as being one of the most poisonous plants known. All parts of the plant are full of toxins and even touching it can produce a rash. Eating it can be deadly. On the other hand, the alternative medicine community considers extracts of oleander to have healing properties.

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Oleander in a market place

Nerium oleander is a shrub that grows in dry river washes from Spain and Morocco through the Mediterranean and into south Asia. Its large range and its reputation as a source of toxins have brought it to the attention of people wherever it is found, and it has many names (rosa de jardin, laurier rose, zakhum, arali). The name used in English seems to be derived from its tendency to exude an oil (oleo) from its trunk.

The flowers have a fringed corolla and appear at the ends of the branches in clusters. There are many different color varieties within the species, and these have been exploited to produce over 400 cultivars. The shrub is frequently planted as an ornamental, in part because of its flowers, and also because deer will not eat it (the toxins affect many species other than humans).

In A.D. 77 Pliny the Elder claimed that oleander extract mixed with wine was an effective snakebite cure. In the 1960s Turkish doctor, Huseyin Ziya Ozel, discovered that villagers in hill towns used an extract of oleander to treat wounds. He then developed a purported remedy for cancer using an extraction from the plant. This concoction, called Anvirzel, has been marketed in several countries outside the United States, but, because it is marketed as a drug rather than a supplement, it is subject to regulation by the FDA, and it is therefore unlikely to be marketed legally in this country any time soon.

Mainstream sources of information, including the International Oleander Society, tend to stress the toxicity of the plant, while alternative medicine and other New Age sources of information promulgate the curative properties of extracts from oleander. It is this ambiguity that makes Delmhorst’s song so enigmatic.

Kris Delmhorst
Kris Delmhorst

The imagery of the first stanza—“born a little soon, raised on too much moon”—has a mystical, New Age feel to it. The image of the “burning son” is also a trick because unless you see it written, you would not know whether she meant “sun” or “son”. You would therefore not not be sure whether the protoganist is male or female, or the nature of the implied relationship in the third stanza.

The transformation wrought by the gathering of oleander and “all the strippings of pride gone astray” is a life spent in the “dappled rays of his love like a fern in the shade,” which is not exactly a triumphant outcome. Is this vicarious life an improvement? Who is he? And what, indeed, “holds you”?

And because you do not know, you want to hear it again … and again—like an event in your own life that changed everything, and you are still not sure how. So you keep turning it over and over in your mind, wondering if, like oleander, it was a cure or a poison.

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Beautiful Filler

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G. paniculata

Baby’s breath (Gypsophila) is one of the most popular “fillers” for cut-flower arrangements. After you tell the florist that you would like a dozen roses, or six lilies, or any mixed bouquet, they will generally set off the blossoms that you actually asked for with sprays of small white flowers and greenery. Quite often those small white flowers will be baby’s breath.

Although the genus is native to the Old World (Europe, Asia and North Africa), Gypsophila paniculata has been introduced to the United States and is found throughout the eastern half of the country, sometimes becoming invasive. Planting Gypsophila may be prohibited in some areas because of its invasive tendencies, so it would be best inquire with the Soil Conservation Service or the state environmental agency before adding it to your garden.

The genus name means “chalk lover,” and the plant prefers mildly basic, calcium-rich soils. Gypsum is calcium sulfate (CaSO4 • 2H2O), but a more common calcium-rich mineral is calcite (CaCO3), the principal mineral of limestones. Chalk is a form of limestone, generally composed of microscopic fossils.

G. muralis
G. muralis

The genus is a member of the family Caryophyllaceae, which also includes the pinks and the carnations. There are both perennial and annual species. “Common gypsophila” (G. paniculata) is a perennial species native to eastern Europe, but is commercially grown in the United Kingdom, Israel, and the Netherlands. It grows to be 24 to 36 inches in height and the flowers are single (five petals). (Several species and many cultivars have doubled petals.)

G. muralis, an annual, is one of the European species that has been naturalized to the United States. Another annual, G. elegans (showy baby’s breath), is often included in “wild flower” seed mixtures and has consequently been widely introduced across North America.

Gypsophila prefers full sun and light, well-drained soils. It can be planted as seed in the fall in (U.S.D.A. Plant Hardiness) Zones 7 and 8, but in colder areas it should be sown in the spring. If seedlings are planted, they can be put in the ground about a month before the last frost. They should be planted about eight inches apart; baby’s breath flowers better when it is a bit crowded.

Once they are established they need little care. When the flowers are removed for use in arrangements, the plant (especially the annual species), will blossom with renewed vigor. The plants don’t even need to be deadheaded. All varieties, both perennial and annual, die back to the ground after the frost hits them. The perennials will come back from their roots, while the annuals will have seeded themselves for the next year.

Baby’s breath is also a good dried plant. Whether you take it from your own garden or preserve the “filler” from a florist’s arrangement, simply hang it upside down in a warm, dry place. Once dried, the flower and leaves of baby’s breath look almost as vital as when they were fresh.

Gypsophila has been cultivated since 1759 in England, so its use by florists has a long pedigree. In the 1990s it began to fall out of fashion as a filler, but it has recently staged a surprising revival. It has become trendy among “celebrity florists” and other trendsetters to create bouquets that consist of baby’s breath, a little foliage, and nothing else.

Although “baby’s breath” is the most widespread common name for Gypsophila (and usually refers to G. paniculata), florists have many other pet names for the plant, include “gyp,” “gypsy,” “million star,” and “diamond spray.” These names tend to vary regionally. In the UK the wild plant is referred to as “soap wort,” not to be confused with a Saponaria species of southern Europe, which go by the same common name.