The beautiful but dangerous ‘Aralipoo’: How poisonous are oleander flowers?

Recently, Oleander flowers, locally called ‘arali’ have created fear in the minds of Keralites. A girl named Surya collapsed at the airport after she plucked and chewed oleander from her neighbour’s house. She was immediately hospitalised, but doctors couldn’t save her. The postmortem reports reveal that she died due to a heart attack, and the doctors who conducted the postmortem informed that the poison in this flower could lead to a heart attack.

Surya Surendran collapsed at the Nedumbassery airport on May 2, Thursday, after chewing oleander from her neighbour’s house. Surya vomited several times on her way to the airport. She was later admitted to a private hospital in Angamaly and shifted to medical college hospital in Parumala near Thiruvalla where she died on Monday.

Understanding Oleander flowers, Kerala’s pretty garden plants

Dr Edward Group published an article about oleander in his online site ‘Global Healing’ in which he mentioned that this plant bears clusters of lovely pinkish-white and red flowers in the spring. Oleanders are fragrant blooms on an evergreen shrub that may grow 18-20 feet tall. Although its seeds and other portions are deadly, these flowers are commonly used in poojas. 

In India, oleanders are known by different names like kanagele, arali, ganneru, kaner, and raktakarabi. This flower has delighted Indian gardens for ages. Oleanders are often large, mounded bushes that dominate the landscape. Oleanders bloom in huge clusters, of 2 inches of single or double flowers from early summer to mid-autumn.

Some history

Known in ancient texts as “the desert rose,” historical references show that the 15th century B.C. Mesopotamians trusted in the healing benefits of oleander extracts. It was used as a remedy for hangovers. 

The Romans and the Arabs, meanwhile, used the herb for a variety of health issues. While oleander may possess many healing properties, much like many botanical remedies this plant can also be deadly when taken or prepared incorrectly. It should never be eaten raw, as its raw extract is highly toxic.

How poisonous is oleander? 

Dr. Edward Group mentions that the plant has enough poison in it to kill a human. All parts of oleander, including its flowers, leaves, stem, and roots contain toxic compounds called cardiac glycosides. These compounds can cause serious health issues if ingested, including nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, irregular heart rhythm and even death in severe cases. 

Medical uses of oleander

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reveals that oleander contains oleandrin and nerioside, which have similar effects to digitalis, a medication commonly used to treat heart conditions like heart failure and atrial fibrillation. However, due to its narrow therapeutic window and potential for toxicity, oleander is not used therapeutically in mainstream medicine for heart conditions. Some studies have also suggested that oleander extracts may also have potential anti-cancer properties, particularly against certain types of cancer cells. 

It can also be used against asthma, epilepsy, painful menstrual periods, malaria, ringworm, and indigestion. Oleander is sometimes applied to the skin to treat skin problems and warts, the NIH website said.