The call came in early September last year. My aunt and uncle were coming, right away, for a quick visit; they had something to bring me. My mother’s younger brother, Nelson Douglas Midgorden, and his wife, Madeline, live in Clive, Iowa, a suburb of Des Moines, not far from the house I came home to from the hospital where I was born. Though 500 miles has separated us for more than 50 years, we regularly keep in touch, yet a trip had not been planned for 2022.
And so, they arrived, along with the plant — a seedling from a 100-year-old oleander. My Aunt Maddie recounted to me the family’s history with the Nerium Oleander:
This story begins in Derby, Indiana, with my great-grandparents, “Daddy Mac” and “Mother Mac.” They were in possession of an oleander plant that traveled with them when they left Indiana in 1920. From Indiana, they moved to Kingston, Missouri. From Missouri, in 1927 they moved to Lamoni, Iowa, where they lived for a few years, still bringing with them the oleander.
During the Depression, Daddy Mac and Mother Mac moved to Chicago, Illinois, hoping to find work. They left the oleander plant with their daughter Mildred (my grandmother). After World War II, my great-grandparents returned to Osceola, Iowa, and bought a small plot of land. The oleander went back to live with Mother Mac until Daddy Mac passed away. Mother Mac then went to live with my grandmother, back in the small town of Lamoni.
My first memories of the oleander are of it potted by the door of their bungalow. That’s where it stayed until my great-grandmother and grandmother died in 1974 and 1975. After that, it went to live with my aunt and uncle in Des Moines.
Of course, during all these years, the plant overwintered inside. One year, the oleander plant almost died. My uncle took the root and placed it on a tree stump in their backyard. In the spring, a new green shoot was visible from that root. They replanted that root, and it grew into a lovely bush, and the flowers still had its beautiful fragrance.
About three years ago, they noticed two seed pods growing. In all those years, they never had seen seed pods on the plant.
After the pods dried, they opened them and retrieved the seeds. They were successful in getting the seeds to grow after two tries. The plant they hand-delivered in September is one of the four that grew. Its first tiny star-shaped fragrant blossoms bloomed soon after it arrived in Southwestern Indiana.
Of course, I have babied it, placing it by a sunny window over the winter — away from the pets (yes, it is a famously poisonous plant), and bringing it in and out as the temperature allows. It’s grown about three or four inches since last fall.
We do not know why my grandparents had an oleander plant in Southern Indiana in the 1920s. Oleander, known to thrive in hot, subtropical climates, is cultivated worldwide for use in landscapes. I have seen it grow profusely in the south of France and in Mexico, where it is prized for its masses of long-blooming flowers. Galveston, Texas, is known as Oleander City; its first oleander arrived in 1841 from Jamaica. Oleander’s fragrance is used in perfumes.
I can find no evidence to prove or disprove the lyrics in Steely Dan’s “My Old School”: “Oleanders growing outside her door. Soon, they’re gonna be in bloom up in Annandale.” It’s not likely oleanders would thrive in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Nor was it likely the plant now in the care of my aunt and uncle would survive more than a century. I’m making long-range plans for my seedling.
Caring for this oleander plant is a new tradition for me. It’s time for both of us to get out in the sun and welcome summer.
As always, I look forward to hearing from you.
Kristen K. Tucker
Publisher & Editor
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