Garden travelers with a passion for flowers may choose from any number of communities that claim to be The City of Roses – Portland, Oregon; Tyler, Texas; Little Rock, Arkansas; Pasadena, California and Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
Spokane, Washington and Lombard, Illinois are both the Lilac City.
The entire state of Kansas claims sunflowers.
Rochester, New York covers it all with its moniker: The Flower City.
But if oleander is your passion, you must head south to Galveston, Texas, otherwise known as The Oleander City.
Oleander History in Galveston
Galveston, of course, is a barrier island 27 miles long and up to three miles wide in places. The only native growth here are grasses and wildflowers, such as Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella), Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). These provide color and beauty to gardens while providing food and homes for birds, bees, and butterflies.
But in 1841, a Galveston merchant made a buying trip to Jamaica and came back with, among other items, oleander (Nerium Oleander). His wife and sister-in-law fell in love with the gentle blossoms and began to propagate the plant. Within a few years, oleander blossoms, pink and red and white, brightened the sandy landscape of Galveston Island. After the devastating hurricane of 1900, oleander bushes were the first plant to recover.
Incidentally, Hiroshima Japan is also known for its oleander because it was the first blossom seen after the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945.
By 1967, Galveston gave birth to the International Oleander Society, which today has about 150 members from 30 countries. A few active members from Austria are known to regularly send clippings from their oleander in Austria.
“With all of the snow they get in Austria, we were surprised to learn that gardeners grow oleander,” said Lydia Miller, past president of The International Oleander Society based in Galveston. “But they keep them planted in big tubs that they simply roll inside during the winter.”
Oleander has become such a staple at homes, businesses and public spaces that, in 1989, the mayor signed a decree declaring Galveston as The Oleander City. However, members of the Oleander Society were surprised when a city improvement project a few years back included painting plumeria blossoms on city bollards, the concrete or steel posts to direct traffic or prevent vehicles from accessing buildings. “At least plumeria is in the same family as oleander, but this is a reminder that we need to continue to educate new residents the history of oleander here,” Miller said.
Where to See Oleander in Galveston
While oleander is literally found on every block in Galveston, garden travelers will want to visit the Betty Head Oleander Garden, a half-acre park at 2624 Sealy Road, directly behind the Moody Mansion. Named for a late president of the Oleander Society, the garden is home to 41 different species of oleander.
“It’s lovely any time of day, but I prefer to visit in the evening because the fruity scent is so much stronger then,” Miller said.
The garden was just two years old in 2008 when Hurricane Ike made landfall on Galveston Island. Residents evacuated and were not allowed back for two weeks. Salt water covered the entire island for 48 hours, including the Oleander Garden. When Miller and others were finally able to attend to the garden, they didn’t know what to do. So they simply cut everything down to about eight inches and hoped for the best. True to its heritage, almost every oleander planting survived.
The Garden is the site of the Oleander Festival (April 22, 2022). The event includes performances by the Galveston Ukulele Band, food vendors and of course, opportunities to buy oleander and learn about its care.
Another small but lovely garden featuring the petite pink oleander is just behind City Hall at 823 Rosenburg Street downtown.
All visitors to Galveston will want to experience the Bryan Museum, but gardeners will especially appreciate the grounds, filled with oleander, lilac and hydrangea, among other seasonal blossoms.
Moody Gardens in Galveston
Moody Gardens is a destination unto itself with a hotel, golf course, conference center, water park and aquarium. But garden travelers will enjoy simply strolling the grounds, more than 240 acres with at least 20,000 tropical plants and trees that bloom and add color throughout the year.
The Rain Forest pyramid houses 1,700 exotic plants from Asia, Africa and the tropical Americas. As you walk through the Rain Forest, say hello to those working with the plants. Moody Gardens has developed a horticulture therapy program through which individuals with disabilities can improve sensory awareness and motor abilities, develop confidence and learn new skills to prepare for employment opportunities.
Moody Gardens also has a Medical Plant program. In coordination with the University of Houston School of Pharmacology, the Moody Gardens horticulture department grows vegetation from rainforests that have the potential for controlling diseases and viruses. Researchers at the University of Houston receive cuttings from Moody Gardens for additional research.
Where to Stay:
The Grand Galvez is a historic property that earns its name “grand.” Opened in 1911 with 226 rooms, the hotel was known for peacocks strolling through the lobby and alcohol flowing during Prohibition. The Spanish Revival style building is simply magnificent and worthy of visiting for dinner, a drink or a spa treatment, whether you overnight here or not. The sunken Oleander Garden was added after World War II. Oleanders line the slope that leads down to the garden between the hotel and garden. Obviously, it’s a popular place for weddings.
Like everywhere on the island, the oleander here took a hard hit in the February 2021 winter storm that plunged Texas below freezing for several days. But again, true to form, they have come back as strong and beautiful as ever.
The Moody Gardens Hotel is a part of the massive Moody Garden experience. This 433-room property has it all with indoor and outdoor pools, a spa and several dining options. Look for packages that include admission to the Rainforest Pyramid.
When You Go:
Check out the opportunities provided by the Galveston Nature Council, which includes wetland and coastal prairie tours, birding opportunities and more.
To learn more about the history of the island, visit mojotraveler.com.
When planning a visit to Galveston, the staff at Visit Galveston can answer your questions.
A travel writer from Kansas City, Missouri, Diana Lambdin Meyer is an award-winning member of the Society of American Travel Writers and Midwest Travel Journalists. She spent the pandemic lock-down building a new garden in her backyard featuring lilacs, peonies and hydrangeas.