The Mystery of the White Oleander: On the trail >1547<
We begin in the year 2019. The author, within the framework of the Oleander Haus, undertakes tracing a path back to the mid-16th century, specifically to the year 1547. We shall see how the lore of the “White Oleander” was transmitted through the centuries, and we’ll get to know the people involved and their times, as this plant was first discovered almost 500 years ago.
Christoph Köchel. Verlag Eugen Ulmer. 1st edition 2000, 2nd edition 2007.
The most recent book which describes the oleander comprehensively for the German-speaking areas of Europe. In the chapter on the cultural history of the oleander, Köchel writes, word-for-word: "Mitte des 16. Jahrhunderts wurde in Kreta dann ein weiß einfach blühender Oleander gefunden und in Italien eingeführt." (Then, in the middle of the 16th century, a white, single-flowered oleander was discovered in Crete and introduced to Italy).
The Handbook on Oleanders
Richard & Mary Helen Eggenberger, 1996, ISBN: 0964322412
[Narad (Richard M. Eggenberger)]
In the chapter 'Introduction of Cultivated Oleanders' Eggenberger writes:
"F. J. J. Pagen relates that for many years the only form was the single, odourless, pink or red-flowered Mediterranean variety until a white-flowered form was found growing in the wild in Crete in 1547 and was introduced to Italy.
From John Gerard's The Herball, or Historic of Plants (1597), we know that he was growing a red and white form in England in 1596."
Oleanders; Nerium L. and the Oleander cultivars
Series of revisions of Apocynaceae XX
F. J. J. Pagen, Department of Plant Taxonomy Agricultural University Wageningen, The Netherlands, Wageningen papers 87-2 (1987), ISBN 9789067541077 - 113.
Pagen schreibt: "For a long time the common form of the Mediterranean oleander with single odourless pink to red flowers was the only one known and cultivated in Europe. In 1547 a form with single white flowers, discovered in Crete near
Camerachi on Mount Ida (SAVI 1818), was introduced into Italy by PIER ANTONIO MICHIEL (BLUNT 1979). In 1560 CONRAD GESSNER mentions an oleander in cultivation in Basel. . . . In 1596 in England, JOHN GERARD had a red and a white form of the oleander."
SAVI, G. (GAETANO) 1818. Flora Italiana. Pisa, presso Niccolo Capurro.1:23-26,t 9 (In Italian).
BLUNT, W. (WILFRID) 1979. The Illustrated Herbal. London, Lincoln. 101.
There are no source annotations regarding PIER ANTONIO MICHIEL, CONRAD GESSNER or JOHN GERARD.
The Illustrated Herbal, Wilfrid Blunt, 1979, London. ISBN 0-906459-02-8 and
The Art of Botanical Illustration: An Illustrated History. (First edition 1950)
Blunt refers back to PIER ANTONIO MICHIEL: „ Among his numerous introductions into Italy may be mentioned the white form of the oleander.“
I cinque libri di piante : Codice Marciano
Pietro Antonio Michiel; trascrizione e commento di Ettore De Toni. - Venezia : Officine grafiche Carlo Ferrari, 1940. (IT-MiFBE)80011985 .
Available as a PDF by SCRIBD.
Ettore De Toni arranges here, in five volumes, the comprehensive writings of P. A. Michiel (texts, transcripts, and illustrations). Of special importance are the many commentaries which refer to the other botanists and scientists of the 16th century, such as MATTIOLI, ANGUILLARA, ALDROVANDI, GHINI, PENA, L’OBEL und BELON.
Reise nach der Insel Kreta im griechischen Archipelagus im Jahre 1817. (A Journey to the Island of Crete, in the Greek Archipelago, in the year 1817) Franz Wilhelm Sieber, Leipzig ; Sorau, 1823, Bibl. Mont. 1257-1.
Sieber had obviously found the wild white oleander again.
" . . . ich einen weiß blühenden Oleanderstrauch bemerkte den man weit und breit unter dem Namen Galanosphaca, der milchweiße Oleander, kannte.
Nirgends auf der ganzen Insel, auf welcher es Wälder von dem rothblühenden baumartigen Strauche gab, konnte ich auch nur eine einzige Spielart derselben mit weißen Blüthen gewahr werden, . . . "
(". . . I noticed a white-blooming oleander bush, which was known far and wide by the name Galanosphaca, the milk-white oleander. Nowhere else on the entire island, on which there were forests of the red-blooming tree-like shrubs, was I aware of even a single sport of the same, . . .")
Flora Italiana ossia raccolta delle piante piu belle che si coltivano nei giardine d'Italia.
New York Botanical Garden Mertz Library Catalog.
SAVI provides, in the several pages devoted to the oleander, a color illustration with red/pink double oleander blossoms, a pink/white single flower, and a white single flower.
The 'Mazza di San Giuseppe' (staff of St. Joseph) is the single pink oleander.
"Se ne coltiva una varieta di flor blanco, la quale e spontanea in Creta, sul monte Ida, vicino a Camerachi (Bellonio I. c. cap. 16.) e di la venne in Italia nel 1547. (Mattioli loc. cit.) Conserva questa il suo colore anche per riproduzione da seme, e io non ho mai veduto, ne saputo essere stato veduto da altri, che dai semi della comune Mazza di San Giuseppe, ne sieno nata di quelle di fior bianco."
"A variety with white flowers is cultivated; this was found growing wild on the mountain Ida near Camerachi (Bellonio I., chapter. 16) and was brought to Italy in 1547. (Mattioli loc. Cit.) It retains its color even when propagated by seeds, and I have never seen, nor do I know of anyone else who has seen white-flowered plants originate from the seeds of the usual Mazza di San Giuseppe."
The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes.
John Gerard, John Norton, London 1597.
Botanicus Digital Library, available as a PDF.
John Gerard writes regarding ‚The Rose Baie‘ und ‚The Rose Baie with white flowers‘: „I have them growing in my garden“.
Commentarii in libros sex Pedacii Dioscoridis Anazarbei, De Medica Materia.
Pietro Andrea Mattioli, Venetijs : Vincentius Valgrisius / Off. Erasmiana, 1554 [Pietro Andrea Mattioli] Düsseldorf : Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek, 2012, urn:nbn:de:hbz:061:1-160434, available as a PDF,
Botanicus, Missouri Botanical Garden Library, available as a PDF.
In 1586 Mattioli’s work was translated into German by Joachim Camerarius (J. Camerarius, Engl. Wikipedia) in 'Franckfort am Mayn' and published in an arrangement by Georg Handsch under the title Kreutterbuch (Book of Plants).
"Bringt purpurbraune oder offtermal weisse Blumen wie die Rosen. . . so seindt auch diese gemein an dem Wasser in Candia oder Creta . . " ("Produces crimson, or often white flowers like roses – these are also common by the water in Candia or Crete. . . " )
urn:nbn:de:bvb:12-bsb00091089-7 / Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, available in digitalized form.
In a color edition from 1590, the large drawings of the flowers and a blossom on the bush are white.
Stirpium adversaria nova.
Pierre Pena & Matthias de L'Obel, London 1570.
CAMENA - THESAURUS-Edition, Bibliothek der Universität Mannheim, available in digitalized form.
'Toni' quotes in the Latin text from 'Stirpium adversaria nova by Pena & L'obel' regarding the sometimes red, sometimes white oleanders in Italian gardens and on the coasts.
Scholarly treatise on Pierre Pena et Mathias de Lobel / La Botanique en Provence au XVIe Siècle. (in French.)
I cinque libri di piante : Codice Marciano / Pietro Antonio Michiel ; trascrizione e commento di Ettore De Toni. - Venezia : Officine grafiche Carlo Ferrari, 1940. (IT-MiFBE)80011985 . Available as a PDF by SCRIBD.
Pietro Antonio Michiel [Pietro Antonio Michiel, Latin Wikipedia].
Michiel compiled into five volumes the handwritten notes on which he had long worked between 1553 and 1565. They are located today in the 'Biblioteca nazionale Marciana di Venezia'. The notes, including illustrations, were never printed and published; only 400 years later, in 1940, did 'Ettore De Toni' provide them with comprehensive commentaries and publish them. 'Michiel' developed a reputation after he obtained the “White Oleander”, grew it in his Venetian garden, and distributed it to other botanists.
On the second page, the oleander is described and it is mentioned that there is a rarer white variety which is found in 'Candia' (Heraklion/ Crete).
The third page consists of commentaries by Ettore De Toni on the white oleander and its occurrence in Candia, and that it had previously been unknown in Italy. Further on, we find the sources for the records of other botanists of Michiel's time, such as Luigi Anguillara, Ulisse Aldrovandi, Pierre Pena und Matthias de L’Obel.
On the fourth page, Toni discusses the drawing of the oleander with the red and white blossoms in comparison to Mattioli's drawing.
It is interesting that Toni does not mention Pierre Belon with regard to the white oleander.
Erbario di Ulisse Aldrovandi, a herbarium consisting of 15 volumes with more than 5000 plant discussions. Founded and collected between 1551 and 1554 with the help of other scholars of
‚The Herbarium of Ulisse Aldrovandi‘ / ‚Erbario di Ulisse Aldrovandi’ in Italian Wikipedia.
The second illustration is annotated as 'Rhododendron flore rubro', thus as 'Red Oleander'; the third and fourth pictures are marked 'Oleander flore albo', 'White oleander' (Oleander with white flowers).
Regarding Anguillara's text on "Apocino", see below.**
Semplici dell' eccellente M. Luigi Anguillara, Liquali in piu Pareri . . .
Luigi Anguillara (actually Luigi Squalermo). [Luigi Anguillara].
urn:nbn:de:bvb:12-bsb10186424-6 / Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, available in digitalized form.
The work 'Semplici' was printed in 1561; however it was written in the years between 1549 and 1560. These numbers are very close to 1547. Therefore, we will use these numbers as the annotation regarding the years, as opposed to 1561; we know further that Anguillara traveled extensively in Greece as well. He saw the plants himself and described the locations where he found them. Regarding whether this also pertains to the white oleander, further research is required; but in any case, the “discovery” of 1547 and its presence in Michiel’s garden correspond well timewise. (Author’s note).
Semplici, page 82: "Oleandro: On the island of Candia there are specimens of plants called Rhododaphne. One of them has white flowers, otherwise they do not differ from one another. Both can be seen in . . . Michiel’s garden”. (Free translation; needs improvement).
Semplici, page 274: "Oleandro: Thus, there are two types: one with white flowers and one with red. Both grow wild by the rivers in Candia. They are also very well known in Italy; sometimes they are called Nandro, sometimes Oleandro." (Free translation; needs improvement).
Les observations de plusieurs singularitez et choses memorables trouvées en Grèce, Asie, Judée, Egypte, Arabie et autres pays étrangèrs. / Les observations English Wikipedia / Les observations French Wikipedia.
Pierre Belon (Petro Bellonio/Petrus Bellonius/Petri Bellonii)
The Wikipedia entries in the different languages vary as to the amount of detail.
For the year, we have naturally taken the date of 1547, which is when Belon visited Crete at the beginning of his long journey and also found the white oleander there. In 1549, Belon returned to France from his travels and in Paris in 1553 he published the first edition of his travel report 'Les observations'. A series of different, revised editions by different publishers followed; there was even one in Latin in 1605.
We have selected the first edition of 1553 (Gallica, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 'Les observations') in an identical publication from the year 1558 (Google Books) , as it is more legible (the first two pages).
Pages 3 and 4 derive from an edition that had appeared in Paris as early as 1554. (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, link: http://data.onb.ac.at/rep/104448F7). All editions are available in digitalized versions. The two text excerpts presented do indeed differ in their wording, but describe clearly that it was near the location of 'Camerachi' on the road to 'Candia' in the valleys of 'Mont Ida' that Belon had found the white oleander ('Le Nerion qui porte la fleur blanche, . . ').
Here is a biography of the formidable natural historian, medic, and botanist Pierre Belon, plus information about his travels, his books, and his stay in Greece and Crete: travelogues.gr (English).
The search for clues is finished; we have found Pierre Belon, the first botanist to describe the white oleander – but has the mystery surrounding the white oleander been cleared up? Not entirely.
It is not clear who actually gave Michiel the plant (or seeds, or cuttings) for his garden. Most likely it was not Belon himself, as he had only come back from his journeys to Asia and Egypt in 1549. More probably it was other plant specialists on commission in 1547 ** . If one considers how long it takes for a seed or cutting to grow into a blooming plant, and then to become large enough to propagate, that’s a quick ten years. The new plant must have been cared for and grown quickly. But another question is much more important.
Why was this white oleander there on the island of Crete? And not somewhere else previously? Was it a chance mutation, long before or shortly before it was found? Might it not have hybridized with the pink type in the 50-to 100-year window of time before the “Indian Oleanders” arrived? Were there mixed shades between white and pink, such as we know today? Or could this have happened only with the arrival of the new oleanders? It was then that the cultivars started to hybridize and diversity began – as well as the confusion.
We don’t even know from the old writings of the 16th century whether the “white oleander” was really pure white. Since only the pink type was known, white (as distinct from pink) was simply white. The written notes and the simple woodcuts, even if the details were colored in, are simply too imprecise for today’s terms. Nowadays, since we can differentiate between hundreds of different varieties, we know exactly what a pure white oleander looks like. And there are few choices among “pure white” cultivars. The varieties known today are ‘Soeur Agnès’ and, in America, ‘Ed Barr’. We don’t know whether the white variety introduced by the Spaniards to America might be identical to our European one.
But who knows? Perhaps our current white oleanders are the great-great-grandchildren of the white oleander from the 16th century, discovered by chance in a rocky valley on a Greek island, and in reality have always been around. Only through gene analysis with modern methods could this be cleared up. In the meantime, our beautiful “white oleander” keeps this Mystery to itself.
** Anguillara's text regarding "Apocino" (Apocynum) in Candia does not refer to oleanders directly, but he writes that two plants from Greece had been sent to him. They were to produce seed pods; one was similar to those of Hedera, the other to those of the oleander. Apocynum, various species, are members of the dogbane or periwinkle family, as is the oleander. The interesting thing is not only the chronological proximity - Belon, Kreta, Candia -, or the similarity of the plants - Apocino, Oleander - but rather the circumstance that it was obviously customary to ship new, extraordinary plants to botanists or to botanical gardens; in this case to Anguillara. This could have occurred in exactly the same manner between Belon and Michiel with the white oleander for the garden in Venice.
About the Botanists of the 16th Century
La botanique en Provence au XVIe siècle. Louis Anquillara, Pierre Belon, Charles de l'Escluse, Antoine Constantin
A la memoire de Pierre Belon, du Mans, 1517-1564