Least Favorite Plant: Yellow Oleander (Thevetia peruviana)


Thumbing through a book of toxic and hallucinogenic plants, I finally manged to i.d. the neighbor’s shrub that looms over the staircase to our front door. The popular name given for this plant in the book was “suicide tree”, so named for its use in Sri Lanka, though I’ve found other plants with this same moniker. The scientific name is Thevetia peruviana, and it’s also known as “lucky nut” (can we change that to unlucky nut please?), Be Still Tree (presumably because you’ll be still if you eat any of it), and yellow oleander (it’s a relative of Southern California’s favorite freeway landscaping flower). I was able to dig up a research study on what the authors described as an “epidemic” of yellow oleander poisoning in Sri Lanka,

“Accidental poisonings occur throughout the tropics, particularly in children. Adults have died after consuming oleander leaves in herbal teas. However, deliberate ingestion of yellow oleander seeds has recently become a popular method of self harm in northern Sri Lanka. There are thousands of cases each year, with a case fatality rate of at least 10%. Around 40% require specialised management and are transferred from secondary hospitals across the north to the Institute of Cardiology in Colombo”

Native to central and south America Thevetia peruviana made its way to Sri Lanka only recently, with the suicides starting up within the last 25 years, according to an article in Bio-Medicine. Apparently news accounts of suicides have fueled its use. The Bio-Medicine article describes a typical incident, “I remember one girl said her mother wanted her to get up and do the shopping. She said no, her mother scolded her and she took a yellow oleander seed.”

A semi-popular landscaping plant, it grows without any water or care here in Los Angeles, though a hard frost would kill it. The elderly neighbor who used to live next door told me that she brought it with her from Mexico. I’ve seen it growing in vacant lots and by the freeway, so it seems to be able to spread on its own. So why put it on the least favorite plant list? It’s neither beautiful nor useful (unless you want to kill someone or hate shopping) nor does it seem to provide habitat or forage for beneficial wildlife. Why plant something that can accidentally poison a toddler?

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31 Comments

  1. Bindweed still wins my ‘least favourite plant’ award, even though it doesn’t kill toddlers.

  2. They had these in the middle of Apalachee parkway in Tallahassee, FL. It’s a divided 4 lane major road and these were in the median. Some do-gooders wanted to get them removed so kids woud not be tempted to eat them! In the middle of 4 lanes of traffic?

  3. Oleander kills toddlers? Balderdash!

    I used to eat Oleander all the time in my youth. The trick is to vomit it all out immediately and then guzzle a bunch of water, vomit again, water, vomit, etc… Then see a doctor immediately. No permanant damage at all. What’s the big deal?

  4. Castor bean is another plant that can kill a toddler….eating one seed can do a lot of damage, apparently. I used to grow it to keep voles out of the vegetable garden, as well as for it’s striking appearance. I always knew it was poisonous, but never realized just how much until last summer. I was weeding and accidentally brushed my arm across a castor bean plant leaf–the skin on my arm burned intensely (and was covered in raised bumps) for about an hour. After doing some research online about its toxicity I decided to remove all my castor bean plants, so no humans or pets would be harmed in the future….

  5. Hey, I don’t think yellow oleanders are ugly – they stay bright green all summer (a nice change from the grayish-green of many heat-tolerant plants) and the flowers smell nice. If we limit our landscaping to plants that can’t possibly hurt anyone, things would be very boring. After all, tomato plants are direfully poisonous, but that doesn’t stop anyone from growing them…

  6. what’s it good for..? For one it makes the highway dividers much much more beautiful than dull grey cement walls, especially when in bloom. Up here in northern CA it’s white pink and red. It is also fire resistent, a great landscaping plant in fire-prone CA.

  7. I’m actually somewhat particular to the plant. I think it can provide good foliage and lots of sweet smelling flowers with little to no care. A plant that flourishes without assistance in our arid southern california weather at least warrants some respect for its water saving aspects.

  8. Its used to treat heart failure in other parts of the world and also is used to treat some cancers including breast cancer. It has its purpose in the world and its not all evil. That said, I wouldnt want it in my yard because Im pretty sure my dogs would still try to eat it.

  9. I’m a little confused here. Call me crazy but the flowers are quite pretty and there are many plants on the planet that are rather dangerous if ingested. We can’t very well start killing off every plant a few people find “unpleasant”. Seems with that logic we’d be destined to kill off quite a few plants that very well may have other benefits we have yet to study (as Chandra said above its used in other parts of the world for beneficial purposes). My advise: don’t leave your toddlers unattended around plants(since they put just about anything into their mouths), don’t plant it in your yard (or pull it up) if you’ve got pets that eat anything/everything, don’t make herbal tea out of a plant you know nothing about (or natural selection might just snuff you out)and suicidal people have countless manners in which to attempt to do themselves harm whether that be by ingesting poisonous seeds, cutting their wrists with kitchen knives or ingesting any number of poisons found under their kitchen or bathroom sinks.

    This feels like a situation that could be made a lot less “dangerous” with a little something called education and awareness.

  10. A few years back teenagers were admitted to hospitals after ingesting Jimson Weed (datura)in an attempt to get high. Trumpet vines are quite beautiful as is the California Poppy, which is an opiate, of course.

    If you’re gonna plant something you should know what it is and how many lawyers it would take to defend it.

  11. That’s a beautiful flower! Honestly, if you watch your toddlers they won’t get into trouble you can’t handle and I’m sure local animals adapt to the plants they are subjected to. Not saying you should put it in a yard where pets can get at it if they’ve a propensity to eating foliage. When I was a kid I played with castor seeds, they’re pretty and make nice necklaces, and I was made aware that the angel’s trumpet was also poisonous. But so’s avocado in large quantities. Anyway, I’d say generally this plant is harmless unless you want to harm yourself.

  12. It’s all about dosage.
    Many animal venoms will kill you at natural strength.
    If diluted, they can be some of the most amazingly useful pharmaceuticals ever.

  13. Tomato leaves aren’t poisonous, at least not in small quantities. As one of the posters correctly points out, toxicity is not a simple question. In some places, such as the Philippines, tomato leaves are used as a seasoning. Things like yellow oleander, however, are not so good to sample.

  14. Also, just to clear things up. Yellow oleander (Thevetia peruviana) is not the stuff planted by the freeway–that’s a related plant–Nerium oleander. Thevetia peruviana does not have a scent (at least I can’t smell one).

  15. I’ll start of by saying I’m fond of certain toxic plants and do not believe the world should be sanitized and safe.

    However, I don’t believe that highly toxic plants should be used in residential landscaping.

    Last month I snatched a poisonous pod from the yellow oleander/suicide tree out of the hands of a visiting toddler.

    We all know how fast objects go from hand to mouth with kids that age, and his parents had no idea what he was picking up. I almost died of fright. One pod could kill a toddler, no joke. And really, even the ordinary, less intensely murderous oleander causes accidental deaths–again, usually when toddlers eat their leaves.

    So come on, oleander defenders! There’s lots of non-fatal drought tolerant plants in the world. Even better, there are wonderful, truly edible perennials that can be used in landscaping. I want my garden to be the sort of place where kids can wander around sticking crap in their mouths with impunity.

  16. My uncle chewed on a yellow oleander as a small child. It damaged his liver, caused cirrhosis later in life. I fully agree it’s a useless plant. There’s other choices for greening medians that won’t kill you.

  17. Does anyone know if the flowers that fall from it are toxic to my garden?

    I have one of these trees and basically nothing but aloe can grow under it.

    I think it has to do with the flower petals, but nonetheless, when I spread some of the leaves and composting flowers around some tomato plants in another spot, the plants startted to wither.

    any answers?

  18. It’s a pretty flower. I think the real problem is that we have lost touch with almost anything growing. Except for people who devout their life to this sort of thing. It could probly be fixed if people were a lot more aware of the world around them. Poisons and all. Just what has the world come to?

  19. Jonnyboy, the problem is probly that the leaves and flowers have poisons in them. As the decompose, the poisons are realsed into the soil. Your tomato plants roots would then asorb the poison, thus killing it. That means that Yellow Oleanders don’t make for compost. Uneless you’re intending to kill your plants.

  20. Nerium oleander is the plant that produces a time tested anti-cancer medicine after careful simmering and filtering to remove the toxic
    cardiac glycosides.It is sold as “Sutherlandia OPC”. Check the yahoo group Oleander Soup for information.

  21. It is poisionous but at the same time if one knows how to use it, it is an anti-cancer drug. This is proven. The name of the medicine made with this plant is Anvirzel.

  22. I live in Phoenix Arizona and had rescued a desert tortoise from the centerline of the I10 freeway. Were were allowed to adopt this endangered specie by the wildlife service. She was an amazing pet.

    Among the desert landscape plants I had in my yard were a dozen Thevetia bushes I had trained to tree form. Peggy Sue (the name my kids picked for the tortoise) loved to eat the yellow flowers that dropped from the tree. Never any ill effects.

  23. Anonymous said…

    I live in Phoenix Arizona and had rescued a desert tortoise from the centerline of the I10 freeway. Were were allowed to adopt this endangered specie by the wildlife service. She was an amazing pet.

    Among the desert landscape plants I had in my yard were a dozen Thevetia bushes I had trained to tree form. Peggy Sue (the name my kids picked for the tortoise) loved to eat the yellow flowers that dropped from the tree. Never any ill effects.

    • I also live in Phoenix Arizona and in 2011 inherited a 35+ yr old desert tortoise from a neighbor moving to CO. After “Tukee” dug several exploratory dens under various plants in my small walled yard, she dug under the roots of our sprawling 30 yr old yellow flowering Theivetia “bush” in the corner of the yard, and settled it there. I noticed that Tukee grazes on the fallen flowers around her den entrance, but with no ill effects. She really seems to like them. She seems to be selective about what plants/flowers she eats.

  24. I live at PGA West in La Quinta. I’m thinking of planting a Japanese Oleander like yours in my side yard. My HOA approved a tipuana tree only to reverse their decision, now I’m faced with putting in a different tree. In old Town La Quinta they have several multi trunked Japanese Oleander trees that look fantastic. Could you send me a picture of how yours looks now as it seems it’s been a few years since your post.
    Thanks, Ron

  25. How can you say this plant is neither beautiful nor useful when it is both? I live in Florida where oleander is planted for shrub fences, sound barriers and simply for its beauty. Oleander is one of the favorite plants for highway medians and roadsides because it requires little to no care and will continue to grow to 30 feet tall.

    As for poisoning, few people are “accidentally” poisoned by oleander. The leaves are very bitter, so I seriously doubt many people have died from drinking tea containing oleander leaves. The few deaths I’ve heard about have occurred when people cut small stalks from oleander bushes and used them to skewer hot dogs or marshmallows for roasting. And while death by Nerium oleander is reportedly excruciating, ingesting the seed of the Thevetia peruviana is said to be an easy way to go.

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