Return of the Oleanders

The Search to Replace Galveston's Signature Blooms

By Kathleen Maca

Since 1910, when Galveston was unofficially dubbed by visitors as “The Oleander City,” parades, balls, and other festivities have been held to celebrate the island’s signature blooming plant. But after the devastation of Hurricane Ike, and a more recent severe freeze, some of even the hardiest varieties of the beloved flower have been lost. A local organization, The International Oleander Society, is determined to change that and bring them back in an even bigger and better way than before.

The first oleanders were brought to Galveston from Jamaica in 1841, by prominent businessman Joseph Osterman. Carried in tubs aboard his schooner, the single white and double pink flowering plants were given to his wife Rosanna and sister-in-law, Amelia (Mrs. Isadore) Dyer.

Amelia, after whom the pink variety was named, loved the flowers and surrounded her home at 25th and Sealy Avenue with them. She also propagated the evergreen plants, giving cuttings to friends throughout the island. The recipients, including Mary Jane (Mrs. Charles) Fowler and Isabelle (Mrs. Moritz) Kopperl, proudly planted them in their yards and along the streets around their homes.

An outgrowth of Mrs. Dyer’s original oleander plant, the gift from her husband, can still be seen at 902 25th Street, with its own historical marker. It blooms every year.

Due to the hardiness and increasing popularity of the lovely plantings in the gardens of Amelia and her social circle, other oleander plants and cuttings were soon brought home from trips to the Middle East and Europe by prominent island families.

Island residents continued to proudly plant these plants until the 1900 Storm struck in September 1900, when the storm surge destroyed much of the island’s vegetation, including its prized oleanders.

When the grade raising began after the storm, residents soon realized that the strong fragrance of the formerly abundant plants would be immensely helpful in tolerating the lingering stench of the inevitable stagnant pools of water and dredge fill covering their island. The Women’s Health Protective Association, with Magnolia Willis Sealy as its inspirational head, chose the oleander for planting in parks and public gardens and to line streets on the newly raised island.

The colorful blossoms in a profusion of colors helped to lure visitors back to Galveston. In 1908, the Galveston Tribune commented that together with the beaches the city’s oleander plantings were ranked as one of the island’s most popular tourist attractions.

Many of the original oleanders introduced into Galveston have undergone several name changes as new names were often given to honor prominent Galveston citizens. In a 1941 compilation, sixty varieties were listed as being found on the island.

The first oleander Festival began in the 1920s, and the Oleander Society, which later became the International Oleander Society (ISO), was founded in 1967. The group has members from across the United States and around the world, and it works to promote oleander research, propagation, and education.

The society also maintains the Betty Head Oleander Garden Park at 2624 Sealy, which is open for the public’s enjoyment. This is where they plan to display an expanded variety of oleanders, including replacements of those lost and new ones from around the world. It’s a project that will involve the help of the public.

Landscape designer Barry Landry, historian for the society, has been tasked with overseeing the project of collecting and propagating cuttings of as many different varieties of oleanders as possible. He has already begun to search Galveston’s residential districts, and obtained seedlings and cuttings to cultivate from Greece, Italy, South Africa, Hungary (where the plants are called “leanders”), and other far and near locations.

“After Ike, they discovered that Harriet Newding (variety) in the Betty Head Garden had been lost,” explains Landry.

“Luckily, Jim Nicholas (an ISO member) had sent cuttings to the Hungarians at an earlier point in time. The Hungarians sent cuttings from their plants to Nicholas in Connecticut, who rooted them and sent them back to the island. The specimen located next to the Trinity Episcopal columbarium, where Mrs. Harriet Newding is interred, was grown from those cuttings. The society obtained permission to take a cutting from that plant to propagate a replacement for the garden,” he said. “Seedlings don’t start blooming for three years, so it’s immensely easier to begin from cuttings.”

“Mrs. Runge (oleander) is a very old variety, and it’s a novelty because it’s the only oleander that exhibits variegated leaves. In last February’s freeze, the garden lost its only examples of this one.”

Luckily, Landry happened upon a large version of the same variety that had recently been cut down and discarded in an alley. He took cuttings from that and was able to revive a sample that it now growing in the garden.

OleandersHardier varieties have been developed that are more resistant to cold weather than the older varieties, and are now also being planted around the island. “They’re almost ever-blooming here because of the climate,” he said.

Landry emphasizes that it’s imperative to save some of the early varietals, since oleanders that are mass-produced by large companies can often result in loss of fragrance and washed-out colors.

Galvestonians who have oleanders on their property or in their neighborhoods that they believe may have survived from an older or unusual planting can contact the International Oleander Society via their website, or by messaging the International Oleander Society Facebook page, where they can also attach a photo of a sample.

Because the blooms of the plants can appear in many different shapes and colors, the easiest way to identify an oleander is by the long thin leaves, which are similar to those of an olive tree.

The society looks forward to working together with the community on the project. Anyone interested in joining the society can also find details about membership on their website.

Galveston’s Own Oleanders Varieties developed by or named after Galvestonians or found on the island include:

Agnes Campbell: single, pale salmon blooms with fuchsia-striped yellow throat and faint fragrance.
Alsace (known as Mrs. Willard Cooke in Galveston): single, extremely pale pinkish white blooms. Its buds are pale peach or salmon.
Bill Cherry: single, intense red flowers on a dwarf or compact shrub resembling an azalea.
Centennial: single, pale ivory blooms with red-striped yellow throat. Named on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the University of Texas Medical Branch, whose official color is bright orange.
Charles A. Newding: single flowers with red and pink two-toned petals.
College Beauty: deep pink, double-flowering variety.
Ed Barr: single, white, non-fragrant flowers on an enormous and vigorous shrub. One of two oleander varieties brought to Galveston from Jamaica by Joseph Osterman in 1841, and therefore a very old variety of great historical significance. Named for a business partner of George Sealy Jr. who propagated thousands of oleander plants by seeds, cuttings, and grafting.
Ella Sealy Newell: single, medium-pink blooms with yellow coronas with pink stripes.
Frances Moody Newman: single, medium to deep pink flowers with a slightly funneled shape.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt: single, salmon blooms with red-striped yellow throat. The flower is slightly star-shaped as one edge of petal curls inward. Named for the President on the occasion of his visit to Galveston in 1938.
Garten Verein: single, medium-pink blooms, named for Galveston’s octagonal German dance hall.
George Sealy: fragrant single, light-to- medium pink flowers. The original seed was planted in 1912, at a “Cotton Carnival” in Galveston.
Harriet Newding: unusual single blooms with parchment-white petals with a deep red streak running along the middle of each one and a scattering of additional red dots. Named by biologist and engineer Robert Newding for his mother, in whose Galveston yard it was discovered.
Henry Rosenberg: single, medium-pink, funnel-shaped flowers with slightly curling petals. Named for one of Galveston’s greatest philanthropists. Henry’s Red: single, intense fuchsia-red variety is very rare and was discovered next to Henry’s Mexican Restaurant at the corner of Broadway and Martin Luther King Boulevard in Galveston.
John Samuels: double blooms with deep pink, ruffled edge petals. Only one is known to exist in Galveston.
John Woods Harris: single, rich deep red blooms with widely-separated petals. Named for a prominent Galveston citizen who was the director of the Galveston Foundation.
Kewpie: unusual pinwheel-shaped large flowers variegated in pink and white, with widely-separated, spiraling petals. Named for Maureen “Kewpie” Gaido, founder of the International Oleander Society.
Lane Taylor Sealy: single, large pale salmon flowers with red-striped yellow throats. Named by the prominent Galveston businessman and philanthropist George Sealy Jr. for his young son whom he engaged to “steal” cuttings during the 1940s.
Magnolia Willis Sealy: flowers with white, broad petals, each coming to a small point in the middle of the rounded outer margin. Named after the wife of George Sealy who worked tirelessly to collect oleanders and other plants and to replace and replant the island’s vegetation after the 1900 Storm.
Mrs. Eugenia Fowler: medium pink, slightly funnel-shaped flowers.
Mrs. Isadore Dyer: double pink flowers with some white streaks, this was brought from Jamaica and introduced to Galveston by businessman Joseph Osterman in 1841.
Mrs. John Adriance: classic, single white blooms.
Mrs. Kelso: single white, star-shaped flowers.
Mrs. Moody: single white blooms on which one side of each petal tip comes to a point, giving an overall notched effect.
Mrs. Kempner: double, deep rose-red, carnation-like flowers.
Mrs. Pearl Knox: double white flowers on which the outer margin of the petals are rounded.
Mrs. Lucille Hutchings: double, light salmon blooms edged with pink.
Mrs. Masterson: single, bell-shaped, light-pink flowers with pink-striped white throats.
Mrs. Robertson: large single, cerise flowers with a strong fragrance.
Mrs. Runge: double pink flowers, with unique leaves variegated with green and cream-yellow.
Mrs. Trueheart: large, deep pink, very fragrant flowers on a rounded shrub.
Pleasants Postoffice Pink: single medium to dark pink, large flowers with petals that “keel” down the middle lengthwise. Discovered on Postoffice Street and named after Clarence Pleasants, a co-founder of the International Oleander Society.
Robert Newding: single, intense deep red flowers on a compact plant with a spreading habit resembling an azalea. The original plant is growing on the slope next to Harriet Newding’s former home.
Sue Hawley Oakes: single, cream-yellow star-shaped blooms with bright yellow throats.
Wimcrest: rare variety discovered on Galveston’s Wimcrest Street with single, pale yellow blossoms with yellow throats.