Oleander Flower (Nerium) Meaning And Symbolism

Oleander is one of those flowers that nearly everyone adores, whether that’s as a garden plant, a houseplant, or as part of a bouquet or flower arrangement. 

They are admired just as much for their fragrance as well as their appearance, but did you know there’s also a lot of symbolism attached to these dainty flowers?

Behind The Name: What Does ‘Oleander’ Mean?

This enigmatic beauty has many names, and it’s unclear as to which was the first. While Carl Linnaeus officially categorized the plant as Nerium oleander in 1753, both names are much older.

Nerium, which is the genus name, a Latin version of the Ancient Greek name for this plant, which is a form of nẽros, which means water. This refers to how the plant is often seen growing naturally along streams and river sides.

The name Oleander (see also Flower Names Beginning With O) appears in records as early as the first century AD. Dioscorides wrote that Oleander was the Roman name for this plant. 

Some believe that this name is an amalgamation of rhododendron and olea. Olea refers to how the plant looks a little like the olive tree, also known as Olea europea

However, oleander also refers to the Greek ollyo, and aner, translating literally as “I kill man”, referring to its potent toxicity. Always be careful not to eat any parts of the plant, and keep it away from pets and children.

Oleander Flower Meaning

While oleander flowers come in many colors, this doesn’t change the symbolism behind them, which is unusual. 

Oleander flowers represent wisdom, a higher level of understanding, and finding a life purpose. 

Due to their resemblance to the olive tree, the oleander is also synonymous with forgiveness, reconciliation and empathy.

The Cultural Significance Behind the Oleander Flower

A Cautionary Tale

The oleander is not only famous for its beauty, but also for its toxicity. There are several urban legends based on how the oleander has claimed a few lives over the years. 

These vary from truth, involving families who have accidentally eaten part of the plant and died, to cautionary tales. 

In some versions, using the oleander as timber and then roasting food over it has caused death, with who died depending on whose telling the story, including soldiers of Napoleon or Alexander the Great. 


The flower of the oleander has also become the official flower of Hiroshima, as it was the first to bloom again after the atomic bomb was dropped on the city in 1945.

It’s difficult to say exactly where the oleander originated from, as it can be found growing ornamentally all over the world, but in some places it is called the desert rose.

In Greek Mythology

In Greek myth, this gorgeous plant has an interesting origin. A man named Leander was deeply infatuated with a woman, and swam the strait of Hellespont in order to see her, every single night.

If you’re familiar with Greek myth, you may know that this strait is named after Helle, who drowned while trying to flee Ino, her stepmother. 

At this point, then, you can assume that Hellespont is rather dangerous, and you can probably guess what happens next.

While swimming, Leander spied a flower that he thought would be perfect to express his love. Unfortunately, he drowned trying to reach it.

His lover could be heard lamenting “O Leander!” the next morning, while searching for him. Instead, she stumbled upon the flowers, which also carry the symbolism of enduring love, passion, or love after death. 

Victorian Language of Flowers

In the Victorian language of flowers, oleanders symbolized a love which was difficult or complex, certainly not an easy option, but one chosen all the same.

Oleanders were also used to convey a message of the value of being careful, or ‘beware!’ which matches up with its toxicity.

Other Interpretations

It was considered bad luck to bring oleanders into bedrooms, as people believed that the plant would invite illness. In a way, it would, if the occupant decided to touch it without washing their hands, or even eating it. 

The Romans used the oleander as an extract for a hangover reliever, and the Mesopotamians believed the oleander could heal the sick.

What does an Oleander Flower Tattoo Mean?

An oleander tattoo is an interesting subject, containing many layers of meaning. The flowers represent caution, love, passion, forgiveness, empathy, and perhaps someone who embodies all of these traits.

When Should You Give Someone Oleanders?

Oleander blooms are perfect for celebrations, such as weddings, birthdays, and holidays.

You’re better off giving someone a potted oleander plant, as the blooms of an oleander won’t last very long on their own, and the plant itself will be a long-lived gift.

However, you have to be careful who you give an oleander to, as the plant is extremely toxic, so it’s not suitable for those with pets or children.

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