I always know May is around the corner when the oleander bushes start to bloom in Northern California, and it is one of the prettiest views in the Central Valley. I fell in love with the bushes – yes, I feel that strongly about them – on my first trip to Spain as a teenager. Leaving cold and rainy Austria behind, I woke up after a night of riding in the car to the Spanish highways lined by blooming oleander bushes. And even now, the sight of the blooms makes me smile and gush. Ask my husband about how often I can point out how pretty the oleanders are on any of our drives from May to August, and he will tell you that it is definitely too often.
After the trip to Spain, I remember bringing cuttings back to Austria and schlepping the large containers of oleander bushes from the garage to the patio in summer and back to the garage in fall since they would not survive the hard frost in Austria. They needed to be babied like the exotic plants they were. Here in California, they are pretty much weeds and more or less nothing can kill them; they are drought tolerant once established and can be cut back to nearly the roots and they will still come back with new growth.
In the Central Valley of California, long stretches of highway are lined in the median by oleander bushes – lush green during winter and exploding color displays from early summer through fall. Once May starts, I look forward to driving specific stretches of highways because I know about the riotous display of blooms; “they’re going nuts!” It might be 100 degrees outside and I might be stuck in a traffic jam and barely moving but that just gives me more time to admire the color display. If the British Romantics would have visited California, I believe they would have composed odes to this humble bush that shakes in the draft of large semis rumbling by.
Oleanders are poisonous, which does not make them very popular with parents of small children but it also makes them deer resistant. And it has created the urban myth that a whole family supposedly was poisoned by grilling hotdogs on oleander sticks over a camp fire. I was warned by my neighbor when I planted our first oleander plant in the front yard.
After the weather and the wild coast of Northern California on Highway 1, oleanders are definitely one of the Golden State’s best traits.