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Brenda's Garden
Oleanders . . . a must in Brenda's Garden
by Brenda Beust Smith
Sunday, May 01, 2011

Kewpie Gaido oleander'Kewpie Gaido' oleander

Holy forests of oleanders were maintained by the ancient Greeks . . .  to honor the sea-god Nereus and his 50 daughters, the Nereides. Chinese literary men . . . recognized them as the emblem of grace and beauty. The oleander was painted in Roman gardens during the time of Cicero 106-3 B.C.  In mural paintings excavated from homes in Pompeii, the oleander was the flower most often pictured in 79 A.D." -- from "Oleanders — Guide to Culture and Selected Varieties on Galveston Island" by the International Oleander Society

Do you know the history of the oleander on Galveston Island?  May is the month of the big annual Oleander Festival on the isle, so I'm going to take some snippets from the International Oleander Society's website ( and give  you a quick history lesson.  Everyone who sets foot on the isle and marvels at these gorgeous plants should know this.

The pictures are from the website too.  For years, over my reporter's desk at the Chronicle, I kept a picture of Clarence Pleasants to remind me to "be nice."  He was, without exception, the nicest person I've ever known.

I also have a great Kewpie Gaido story.  Kewpie and I are related by marriage.  But our best relationship was through our mutual love of plants that thrive on the isle.

Shortly after Moody Gardens opened, Kewpie called me absolutely furious.  She wanted to plant bluebonnets in the entranceway.  At that time, the gardens were overseen by a nationally-known plant expert from "up east." He told Kewpie she couldn't plant wildflowers in his gardens.

When I hung up the phone, I thought to myself, "He's not long for that job. No one makes Kewpie Gaido that mad and survives."  Sure enough, a short time later, it was announced that he was being "replaced."

Best not to mess with island women, as the story below also shows!

Oleander lovers in Galveston saw to it that I was able to buy three Kewpie Gaido oleanders, which I planted at our Crystal Beach beachhouse.  They all did well . . . until Ike.  Elizabeth Head (see below) kept assuring me that they would come back.

But . . . sorry, Betty . . . still no sign of them.

I don't know if they'll have Kewpie Gaido oleanders at the festival plant sale sale, but they'll have a ton of others.  It's a fun festival. Drop by!

Here's from the IOS website history:

The first Oleanders came to subtropical Galveston in 1841. Joseph Osterman, a prominent merchant, brought them aboard his sailing ship from Jamaica to his wife and to his sister-in-law, Mrs. Isadore Dyer. Mrs. Dyer found them easy to cultivate and gave them to her friends and neighbors. The familiar double pink variety that she grew has been named for her. (Picture on right) Soon these new plants were growing throughout the city.


As early as 1846, note was taken of the yards in Galveston with oleanders and roses in full bloom and the contribution they made to the beauty of the city. Oleanders flourished in these early days of the city and were able to withstand the subtropical weather, the alkaline soil, and the salt spray.


Therefore, it was logical for oleanders to be chosen as one of the predominant plants to be used in the replanting of the city following the destruction of the 1900 hurricane and grade raising that covered the existing vegetation with sand.


Concerned ladies of the city soon organized the Women's Health Protective Association (WHPA) with the mission to beautify the island and improve the health conditions of the city. They planted along Broadway, the entrance to the city, and on 25th Street, the path to the beach front, and in a few years, oleanders made a spectacular display of blooms for citizens and visitors.


Although the name of the WHPA was changed to the Women's Civic League, planting continued for many years up and down city streets, in parks, in yards, around public buildings and schools and soon the whole city became a garden of oleanders.


As early as 1908, an editorial in the Galveston Tribune observed that the oleander was emblematic of Galveston and that people came from all over to see them. In 1910, The Galveston Daily News also reported that Galveston was known throughout the world as "The Oleander City" and in 1916, an article named it one of the most beautiful cities in the South.


An oleander-bedecked art car!An oleander-bedecked art car!


Through the pollination of the two original Galveston Oleanders, 'Mrs. Isadore Dyer' and 'Ed Barr', many hybrids have occurred throughout the century. Many of these were distributed all over the United States and, today, are growing everywhere the climate is amicable. Today, corals, yellows, reds, pinks and whites in singles and double forms are found in the warmer climates of America.


In May of 1967, through the vision of Maureen Elizabeth 'Kewpie' Gaido and Clarence Pleasants, the National Oleander Society (later to be changed to the International Oleander Society) was born.


Kewpie GaidoKewpie Gaido


Inspired by Clarence Pleasants (known as 'Mr. Oleander") who's love of this flower he shared with everyone, Kewpie promoted the oleander all over the world. She corresponded with, then Governor of California, Ronald Regan in 1971, after finding out that he had designated many miles of freeway to oleander plantings. She sent him many plants and cuttings in the process. Kewpie also talked with Lady Bird Johnson concerning her own promotion of the oleander around Texas.


Clarence Pleasants saw his first "Oly Andys" in Virginia as a boy and was taken by them and decided to dedicate his life to this beautiful flower. He attended a segregated two room "black only" school until the seventh grade since there were no other grades beyond that point.

Clarence Pleasants

He studied under Fredrick Heutte at the Norfolk Botanical Garden in Virginia for over twelve years. In his quest for knowledge of the oleander, he wrote all over the world looking for information on his favorite flower. In his quest he found out about the 'Oleander City', Galveston, and decided to take trip here. He would eventually move here on July 1, 1961 to be close to the land of the oleander.


Elizabeth Head, society executive vice-president, who was also taken under the spell of Clarence Pleasants' charisma and lure of the oleander, called him the "soul" of the Oleander Society.Today, the International Oleander Society has members all over the world. From France to Japan, the love of the oleander continues to spread. The society promotes this lovely plant through publications, educational projects, festivals and community services which include grants and scholarships. If you are interested in joining us, we would be more than happy to share our fun and knowledge with you.


Now, about the festival: It's May 15-16, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. both days, at the Moody Gardens Visitor's Center.  The festivals free.  For $25 you can have lunch with festival enthusiasts in Moody Gardens Hotel's fabulous Viewfinder's Room at 11;30 a.m. on Friday, May 14.  (Details on this, and the festival: 409-771-5704, 409-762-9334 or


Participating in the festival are Moody Gardens, Master Gardeners, area plant societies, naturalists, birding enthusiasts and environmentalists.  Lots of activities for children too. 


Saturday includes a birding tour and Kids Kraft Session.  Sunday:  Birding tour, floral design competition, floral design for children. 


Check the website for plant sale details and the Saturday, May 22, grand opening of the Oleander Garden Park in Galveston.


This park is a much needed resource and I hope you'll be generous in your support. The oleanders Clarence collected and propagated form a big portion of the array you'll see there. These were at the old Sea World on Seawall Blvd. for years (remember that?) and then were moved to Moody Gardens.  Construction threatened the collection but it was saved by this proposed park.


Joining the International Oleander Society is one way to help support this park.  Be generous!  See the website for details.

P.S.  Don't miss new posts. Make the Lazy Gardener's Blog ( your home page.

Brenda Beust Smith (Features > Brenda's Garden)
Email Brenda for list of area gardening/environmental speakers ($5) andlist of her topics for garden club presentations ($250-$300)


"THE LAZY GARDENER'S GUIDE ON CD" — Specifically for Houston area gardens: monthly do-now reminders & gardening advice. 12 pre-designed gardens for butterflies, hummers, sun, shade and more. A gardening book on CD. $20. Make checks payable to Brenda B. Smith & mail to: Lazy Gardener's Guide on CD, 14011 Greenranch, Houston, TX 77039-2103.

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