Pink Saturday - Beverly at the blog "How Sweet the Sound" hosts Pink Saturday. Let the color pink inspire you!
I'm a little under the weather this week - cramps are roiling my gut, gurgling embarrassingly, with occasional spasms of pain. I don't know whether it's food poisoning, hormonal mischief, or just the large amount of jelly beans and Peeps I ate last weekend.
But I'm staying home with a hot pad on my tummy, lying in bed sipping tea and reading escapist novels.
Oleander is a common shrub here in Southern California, and you see it everywhere. There are white varieties, a pale peachy variety, and bright cherry-red like this shrub in my neighbor's yard.
I first learned about oleanders as a young teen, from a novel by Anya Seton. Back then, I read everything Ms. Seton wrote - thick romances set in Britain and America, with real historic figures interacting with her heroes and heroines.
I'm not sure it was good for me at twelve or thirteen to read these racy tales, with their torid sex scenes; but my teenaged self thrilled to read of the naked white limbs of the adulterous queen glimpsed fleetingly in darkness, the trembling lips of the lusty Puritan maiden, the passionate seduction of Katharine Swynford by the debonair John of Lancaster.
Seton's romances weren't as sexually explicit as modern romance novels, but what they lacked in specifics they made up for in drama, sweep, and sensational intrigue.
One of her early novels was set in the Hudson River valley, and the plot is, to us today, predictable. A young innocent girl leaves home to join the household of a rich family as a companion to their daughter. But all is not well at Dragonwyck. The Patroon despises his greedy and selfish wife, and lusts for Our Heroine. The wife gorges herself on desserts, sprinkling the sweet whipped cream with bay leaf ground in a little spice mill. One night, the unfortunate woman becomes violently ill and dies, freeing the Patroon to marry Our Heroine.
As their marriage founders, Our Heroine begins to suspect her predecessor's death was more than an accident. It is revealed that the Patroon replaced the bay leaves in his wife's spice mill with the deadly leaves of oleander.
Oleander is one of the most toxic plants in cultivation. Almost every part of the shrub is toxic. The bark, the leaves and even the flowers' nectar cause extreme gastrointestinal distress, abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting and excess salivation. It can also damage the heart and the central nervous system.
Living in northern cities like New York and Seattle, I'd never seen an oleander until we moved to Southern California. Some 25 years after reading "Dragonwyck" with its description of the violent symptoms of oleander poisoning, I was surprised and a bit uneasy to recognize the shrubs in my yard as oleanders.
Oleanders are widely grown here, because they're pretty, drought tolerant, and resistant to brush fires.
Still, it's curious that authorities recommend growing it in high-fire-risk areas. In Florida, on the Courtney Campbell Causeway, the state has posted signs among the oleander shrubs growing there, warning fishermen not to use the limbs for campfires to grill fish - so toxic is even the smoke.
In the novel "White Oleander" by Janet Fitch, a woman's conviction for poisoning her lover with oleander lands her daughter in the horrors of the state's foster-child programs. The white oleander appears again and again evoking the unease of Southern California's brush fires, It also appears as a sinister symbol of the mother's sociopathy.
Oleanders grow in many tropical climates, including Sri Lanka and India. There, the Yellow Oleander plant is linked with up to 2000 poisonings a year - mostly deliberate, intended suicide.
As with most chemically complex plants, the oleander's ability to make the human gut purge its contents has beneficial uses, too. It has been used in traditional folk medicine in the Mediterranean region, and recent researchers have used extracts of the plant in anti-cancer drugs.
Still, when I walk the dog on our street we pass dozens of large, lush oleanders, in full bloom for the spring. Their pretty pink and white blossoms are sweetly fragrant, and unless you know what they are, they don't appear the least bit sinister.
Well, now!! Not very cheerful for Pink Saturday, is it? But it got my mind off my gurgling tummy!
What books are your guilty pleasures when you're under the weather?
UPDATE: Well, my tummy-ache has turned into a bigger adventure than I thought. Stay tuned.