29 Jun 2017

Toxic Love in a Southern Garden

There is a deathly obsession going on in gardens of southern France and elsewhere in the sunkissed regions of Spain, Italy and Greece. No matter how toxic the relationship, the likes of my mum and my unfortunate next-door neighbour will pursue the affair nonetheless, despite the warnings.

'Oleanders', oil on canvas by Vincent van Gogh (1888), via The Met Museum

The affair involves misleading lust for mediterranean flowers of the easy kind: easy come, easy grow, easy show, easy go. A native of the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East, it was later introduced to the Far East and Central America. Give them a good watering in times of peak Summer heat, they take care of themselves the rest of the time. They even remember to flower year on year in time for Summer and would even do a little dance if they didn't look so conceited. They're a novice gardener's delight, thus can be pruned back, hacked hard and generally grossly mistreated. Still they will manage to summon enough gusto to thrive back to shape within a trimester and reward you for your carelessness with a myriad blossoms.

The Terrace at Méric (Oleanders), oil on canvas by Frédéric Bazille (1867), via WikiArt

Those come out all over in a rash, in shades of pink and white. The blossoms may look prim and proper as you drive by but get off the car and take a closer look: they are messy. They discard leaves and flowers on a whim, like a furry pet sheds hair, and the freshly-shed flowers end up sticking in clumps to the pathways and pavements and garden tables and the sole of your shoe. Maybe Charles Baudelaire spared them a thought when he penned The Flowers of Evil. You might call them pretty if you're my mum or the woman next door but that sort of beauty is lethal: avoid it at all cost!

(pict source)

They look impressive to the easily impressed, but it's all falsely affected to the tune of fakery in a flurry, like soul sisters begonias and petunias. They're a fifties garden fashion throwback that never actually went away - or went anywhere for that matter - passed on from generation to the next like a heirloom. Why? Because - remember - easy come, easy grow, easy show, easy go. Ubiquitous, so they are, especially when originality is unsummoned and garden space needs to be filled, a hedge be hastily erected at a moment's notice: Nerium oleander is the shrub of choice.

Fatal attraction

No surprise to be had: they behave as expected. The plants are easy on the dollar sign too. In their droves, they charm the charmless garden and will even endeavour to hide a multitude of sins like the ugly breeze-block wall they are backing onto or the irregularities of the terrain. They may fool you with their myriad petals and get you to absolve them of their sins. But their aroma shall fool you not with the old sweaty tee pong, yes the soaked-out worn-out garment that should have been thrown in the wash (or best, in the bin) but clocked an extra day instead. Sweaty pong is all there is to get out of that shrub, and if you stand long enough nearby, you may decide the heavy lingering aroma is posh speak for 'putrid'.

Pretty poisonous is the ugly truth!

Call it oleander all your might, it is of ill repute, plaguing life and playing with death, for it is toxic through and through. My next-door neighbour knows it, yet she amorously planted a couple of those next to her plum tree and allows for the branches to get jiggy with it under the midnight sun. And she still won't come to her senses, instead dragging her chaise longue across her patch of land so it stands exactly right under the flimsy shade of her protégés, admiring their pretentious stance from underneath as she lays down. A morbid rehearsal to God's waiting room?

Putting on a show!

My mum built hedges of those in her dreams and now her dreams are coming true. Leave it to her and leave her to it: she'll talk to them and caress their finger-like leaves with maternal care. Care for them to grow big and vigorous and take over her front lawn like a corporate mission statement: bold and boring. She'll refuse to notice the sap seeping out of the branches and scores of ants and white flies glued onto it. My mum taught me as a child about the toxicity of oleander and now she can't have enough of it in her garden's front row. Such a puzzling contradiction!

Where's Tickle gone? To the safety of the nearby bougainvillea!

I don't see birds showing an interest and rare are the butterflies that do so. I don't take an interest either: I actually dislike the plant with a passion and, as a nature lover, this is one strong statement. Tainted love for some, quiet desperation for others!

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