By Forest Riggs
There are three ways to get onto and off of Galveston Island, including boast and bridges. However you come or go, you will no doubt encounter one of the oldest and most iconic island components. They greet you at every entrance, wave goodbye as you depart and majestically line the roadways, medians, fence lines and yards. Some streets become of a living rainbow, with huge outbursts of color in just about every shade imaginable—yellow, red, white, pink, orange and so on. The flowering beauties are so prominent and for so long have been treasured on the island that Galveston has often been called the “ Oleander Island.”
The island origins of the iconic plant can be traced back to the 1840s when a merchant brought several plants he had obtained in an exotic port of call. Relatives of the merchant started planting and growing the new, colorful beauty and before long, the island was filled with the “ exotic” plant and flower. Demand for the bush became so popular that George Sealy Jr., nephew to famed Galveston developer John Sealy, set up a 14-acre nursery in order to cultivate and sell the plants. Sealy’s nursery contained over 60 different varieties and became quite popular, so much so that requests came from many destinations off the island. In time, the “ Oleander Island” became yet another moniker for the vastly popular island destination.
The Great Storm of 1900, as we all know, brought with it great devastation, not only to structures and human lives, but also to the island’s unique flora and fauna. Reconstruction and the Seawall project was slow and steady. In 1912, Magnolia Willis Sealy formed the Women’s Health Protection Association (WHPA), which was open to women of all classes and backgrounds. Over the next few years, the WHPA planted over ten thousand trees and 2,500 oleanders!
The oleander became so popular that in 1921, the first Oleander Festival took place. In 1967, the International Oleander Society was formed and remains an active and integral part of island life to this day. The Society recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, complete with a well-heeled luncheon, awards of recognition and the annual oleander sale.
Having survived 2008’s Hurricane Ike, yet another catastrophic storm, the oleander and its beauty make a simple statement: “ I am here to stay!”
Hawaii may be proud of its orchids, pineapples and plumerias, but Galvestonians love their oleanders and the “ perfumed sea breeze” it creates. The pink seem to be the most fragrant, giving off a subtle and seductive fragrance which, when combined with a full moon and a gentle breeze, can be downright stimulating.
A true perennial, the Oleander, probably originating in Southern Asia, seems to be at home along the balmy, Texas Gulf Coast. Nerium oleander, as the plant is scientifically known, is in the dogbane family Apocynacae. The plant is the only species currently classified in the genus Nerium.
All parts of the plant are extremely toxic and can cause death. Symptoms of poisoning include cardiac toxicity, severe digestive upset, blurred vision, sweats and even death. Ingesting the leaves, bark, sap or any part of the plant can be toxic. Severity depends on the amount consumed and the age and body mass of the person ingesting the plant parts. Honey from the flower can actually contain the toxin if bees are known to only gather nectar from oleander bushes. The plant is also toxic to all animals, especially dogs and horses. Because of the danger associated with ingesting parts of the plant, albeit a beauty, it is not recommended to be planted in a garden where young children might play or wander.
One of the oldest urban legends that periodically gets revived, retold and retested is that of the dead Boy Scouts! The story goes that a troop of scouts used stripped oleander stick to roast hot dogs. Upon consuming the wieners, the entire group was found dead in the morning. Now that’s a bad wiener! Truth is, this never happened, though it makes for a fun and somewhat frightful way to keep folks from messing with oleanders. Studies have demonstrated that cooking wieners on sticks of oleander, will infuse the meat with a very low level of the toxins contained in the plant; not enough to kill a human, let alone an entire troop of hungry young men.
Over the years and with my love of Galveston, I have made notes for a fantastic novel, Bloody Oleanders: A tale of Lafitte’s Treasure and murder in Galveston. The story goes (or will go), an aging, faded drag queen, Marlene Lafitte, lives alone in a huge, old mansion along Broadway. Now crippled and unable to get out, she “ receives” people from time to time, ranging from the elite to drug seeking hustlers offering work. Along the way, Marlene reveals that in the early 1920s, she used oleander tea to knock off several enemies and wealthy paramours. It just might work!
The oleander is here to stay, taking its place among other icons such as the ferry, the giant crab at Gaido’s Restaurant and the Texas Heroes Monument statue on Broadway, pointing to the San Jacinto Battlefield (local lore is that the statue is actually pointing to the then-neighborhood of bordellos and gambling houses).
If you want to encounter a living icon and yet another gentle reminder of island days long gone by, come take a look at the majestic oleanders. For certain you will want to visit the Oleander Garden at 2624 Sealy, showcasing the plant and its Galveston history.
As a side note, you might want to avoid local wiener roasts and cups of tea, especially at certain houses!
Forest Riggs, a resident of Galveston is no stranger to the adventures of life. A former educator and business owner, he enjoys Island life and all that comes with it. He says he is a “raconteur with a quixotic, gypsy spirit.” Forest has written for several newspapers and magazines as well as other writing pursuits, including a novel and collection of short stories.