Gardening : Nerium oleander : Petite oleanders: Evergreen drought-tolerant dwarf shrubs with showy flowers

You can't live in California and not know an oleander when you see one, so ubiquitous is the shrub that grows happily along the highways and in row upon row on median strips.

With its long, leathery olive-green leaves and clusters of pink or white flowers, it is perfectly suited to such disenfranchised environments--it takes any kind of soil, can be overwatered and underwatered, and tolerates the salt buildup usually associated with dry soils. And it will bloom all year just the same.

A standard oleander grows 15 to 20 feet tall, which makes it much too monstrous for some garden settings. About 20 years ago, samples of dwarf oleanders were collected and brought back from Kenya by the late Maurice Machris, a horticulturist by hobby who planted them in his Bel-Air garden. Later, he gave cuttings to the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum, where they were tested and then released to the nursery trade.

"Petite Pink" and "Petite Salmon," as they are called, are rounded in form. "Petite Pink" grows to about 6 feet and has single, light-pink flowers. "Petite Salmon" has flowers that are a peach pink, and it grows to about 4 feet with a more compact appearance.

Plant in full sun in the spring or fall, making a basin around the foot of each plant. Water deeply and infrequently. Prune to keep the shape and size you want; it can be pruned to 3 or 4 feet. The best time to prune oleanders is during Santa Ana winds: The plants are subject to bacterial gall and branches will callous over more quickly in the heat, preventing infection.

One caveat: All parts of the oleander are poisonous. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and irregular heartbeat. Don't burn the plant or use it to skewer meat for barbecues. Ingestion is not necessarily fatal, and only three deaths in California have been recorded. The most recent fatality, this year, was called a homicide.

Available in 1- and 5-gallon cans, petite oleanders can be ordered by nurseries through Monrovia Nursery Co. in Azusa and El Modeno Gardens in Irvine, among many others.

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