White oleander (Nerium oleander, white) is a flower of a rapidly growing evergreen shrub or small tree in the dogbane family Apocynaceae and the genus Nerium. The flowers are five-petalled, whorled, with a subtle sweet scent, growing abundantly in terminal clusters. They can be single or double, and bloom from late spring to late summer. Apart from the white oleander flower, other varieties of the plant have flowers which can be pink, red, peach, salmon or pale yellow.
The shrubs can grow from 1 to 6 meters tall and from 1 to 3 meters wide. The leaves are richly green, lance-shaped and opposite. The plant produces a poisonous, milky juice. Every part of the plant is poisonous, skin contact can cause irritation and, if ingested, can be fatal. The fruit structure is composed of two long pods which contain silky-haired seeds.
The white oleander flower is also known as rose bay. The Greeks used three names for this flower: nerion, rhododendron, and rhododaphne. In India, it is popular under the common names kaner and bitti.
The flower has an interested and a little complicated etymology. It owes its taxonomic name to Linnaeus, who named it in 1753. The origin of the Latin name Nerium is found in the Greek word nerion, which is related to another word, neros, meaning water. Namely, the plant’s natural habitat is along water basins—rivers and streams. On the other hand, the flower’s common name, oleander, is of uncertain origin. Some sources link it to the Latin wold olea which stands for an olive tree (due to the resemblance of the two plants). Other theories hypothesize an etymological link to the Greek compound word ollyo, which means “I kill”, and aner, which means “man”. This is a reference to the toxin contained in the plant.
The white oleander flower is native to the Mediterranean region—southeastern Eurasia and parts of Africa. It is found in Spain, Morocco, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Iran, India, Central China, Ethiopia and Niger, where it is often grown outdoors. The plant is widely used as an ornamental and border plant. It can be seen in parks, gardens and along rodesides. As a cultivated and naturalized species, the white oleander is grown worldwide. It can be found across North, Central and South America, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan and many parts of Africa.
What do white oleander flowers symbolize?
The white oleander has mixed, and often contradictory meanings. Sometimes, it is seen as a benevolent, protective flower. In other contexts, its symbolism is associated with negative, base emotions, such as fear, bitterness and distrust.
The white oleander flowers as a symbol of bitterness and contempt
A Moroccan legend claims that the oleander flower was created from the saliva of Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet. When Fatima saw her husband entering the house with a second wife, she spat on the floor in contempt. That is where the oleander flower immediately sprang up. Based on this anecdote, the Moroccans have a saying, “a rival is bitter as the oleander”.
The dark symbolism of white oleander flowers
Along with all oleander flowers in general, the white oleander, too, is often perceived as a sinister and funereal flower. The white oleander flower meaning is often related to the fact that the plant is poisonous. In the symbolic language of flowers, all oleander flowers symbolize danger, distrust and caution. For example, in Italy it was once believed that bringing an oleander flower into the home would bring sickness, disgrace and all kinds of misfortune. In the Victorian Era, the message carried by this flower was “Beware”, “I am dangerous”. Ethnologists have reported that the Hungarian Gypsies used to mix oleander in wine and use it for abortions. In India, the flower has been used for both suicidal and homicidal purposes.
A semi-historical, semi-legendary account of Alexander the Great tells of an incident in which Alexander’s army lost a few soldiers and many horses which had fed on oleander shrubs. Therefore, in India, all oleander flower plants (including the white oleander) are known as “horse-killers”. For a similar reason, the flower has been known in Italy as “Ammazza l’Asino’, or “ass-bane”.
In Sicily and Tuscany, there is a funerary custom to cover the dead with oleander flower blossoms. In India, chaplets of oleander flowers are placed in the brows of the dead. In Greek Mythology, the name of the flower is associated with Leander, a handsome young man who fell in love with Hero, one of Aphrodite’s priestesses. The two lovers lived on different shores of a strait, and Leander swam across the river every night to be with Hero. One stormy night, Leander drowned and Hero found his body. Feeling devastated, she threw herself over the tower to reunite with Leander in the afterlife.
The white oleander flowers as a symbol of protective power
Not all symbolical meanings of the white oleander flower are negative. For example, in some parts of Europe, it was once believed that mixing oleander flowers in a wine could act as a remedy against snakebites. It was also believed that the “Sultan of the Oleander”, an oleander stalk containing a cluster of four pairs of leaves round the stem, was endowed with “baraka” (protective power).
In North Africa, particularly in Morocco, the bride was carried to the house of the bridegroom on the back of a mule, in a box made of oleander twigs. This was believed to ward off the evil eye. Due to the same protection principle, oleander twigs (including white oleander ones) were often placed between the horns of ploughing oxen, and at the bottom of stacks of reaped corn.
When a person got sick and believed that the sickness was caused by an evil eye, they used oleander leaves to reverse the condition. The oleander leaves were burned, and the smoke would pass underneath the patient’s clothes. The patient would then inhale the smoke as it cater through his clothes.
Sometimes magic formulas were written upon the leaves of a white oleander and used as protective or lucky charms. Pens made of the wood have also been popular. Anyone suffering from an attack by jinns (malevolent spirits in the Islamic spiritual tradition) was rubbed for two months and twenty days with a mixture of oleander oil and other medicines. The patient was also beaten with oleander twigs on the both sides of the body.
In Ancient India, white oleander flower was one of the plants used in the sacrificial rituals dedicated to Vishnu, one of the supreme gods. Thus the plant has acquired a sacred status. In Tuscany, the oleander flower is also known as “Mazza di San Giuseppe” or “St. Joseph’s Staff”, due to a legend which says that the stuff blossomed in the hands of the saint.
What do the various colors of the white oleander flower mean?
As the name of the flower indicates, the white oleander flower is the variety of oleanders with white blossoms.
White Oleander Flower
The whiteness of the white oleander flower is an obvious contrast to the perceived darkness of all evil powers. People across times and geographies have often strived to use the protective power of this plant.
In popular culture, the white oleander flower meaning is largely influenced by one particular literary work—the 1999 “coming-of-age” novel named “White Oleander” by the American author Janet Fitch. In this novel, the white oleander meaning is deceptive beauty and danger that lurks underneath. It also symbolize the innocence and uncorrupted state of youth. In 2002, the book was adapted into a film starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Renée Zellweger. The popularity of the movie further reinforced the white oleander flower meaning.
Similarly, the song “Oleander” by the rock band “Mother Mother” from their 2011 album “Eureka” strengthens the white oleander meaning in popular culture. “Like an oleander—white, white leaves, of an oleander—white like me—I’m like a child in a sty—I play with vile—I burn you right out, I burned your Bible”, the lyrics go. Obviously, the song plays with the usual contrast—the whiteness of the oleander flower, against the darkness of the main character.
Interesting facts and characteristics of the white oleander flower
- The white oleander is a species with hermaphrodite flowers, but the spacial separation of stigma and the pollen prevents the occurrence of self-fertilization.
- The fruit of the oleander plant is called capsule. The capsule contains numerous seeds.
- The oleander flower has been present in the Mediterranean Region since the Miocene epoch (5–23 million years ago).
- White oleander flower (as well as varieties of oleander in other color) have been uses as a traditional medicine for treating warts on the island of Chios. The procedure consisted of first putting a leaf on each wart; then, during the waning phase of the moon, the leaves were put under a stone in a riverbed. The patient was advised to leave, without looking back.
- The oleander flower is the official flower of Hiroshima. The oleander was the first plant that blossomed in Hiroshima after the 1945 atomic bomb tragedy.
The best time to gift someone white oleander flowers
Owing to their rich symbolic meaning, white oleander flowers can be considered a meaningful gift at various occasions.
White oleander flowers can be gifted to a friend who needs a bit of good luck and emotional support in times of challenges and difficulty.
White oleander flowers symbolize purity, innocence and beauty. As such, can be a good engagement or wedding gift.
These flowers have also been associated with funeral customs in many countries. Therefore, they can be considered a proper choice as funeral flowers.