International Oleander Society
Celebrating Over 40 Years
Story & Photos By Shannon Rowan
Galveston is known as the “Oleander City” and after the 1900 Storm, the city celebrated with it’s first Oleander Festival. Oleanders were brought to the Island by ship from Jamaica in 1841 by Joseph Osterman, a prominent merchant. These plants were easy to cultivate and grown through out the city.
In 1967, Maureen Elizabeth “Kewpie” Gaido and Clarence Pleasants had a vision to start a National Oleander Society, later changed to the International Oleander Society. Kewpie promoted the Oleander all over the world and even corresponded with at the time, Governor of California, Ronald Reagain in 1971. She sent him many plants and cuttings and he designated many miles of freeway to Oleander plantings.
In 1989 the city asked the society to be revived. It became international. Mostly members are from around here, but there are over 200 some members internationally. Currently the average member is quite older and most are Galvestonians.
When Kewpie and Clarence revitalized and organized the society, there were about 60 varieties of Oleanders, today there are more than 100.
Society member Elizabeth Head who has done a little bit of everything within the society from executive Vice President to President and a myraid of other positions from the 70s.
“I grew up here and always loved the Oleander,” says Elizabeth. “I played with them as a child. I became interested in the society because I did some table decorations using the flowers of Oleanders.”
Elizabeth who was a good friend of Kewpie, said that currently the society has a Garden Park that’s development started after Hurricane Ike, and has been four years in the work. The Island’s most recent freezes have created more work for the park, which is located behind Moody Mansion. Other projects in the past involving Oleanders include the highway plantings, Sea-Arama and 25th and Broadway. Once they complete the park it will be open to the public.
Elizabeth recalls many Oleanders at Moody Gardens before Hurricane Ike. “They are gone too,” says Elizabeth. “The park behind Moody Mansion is our last chance to preserve the historic varieties and show off the flower of Galveston.”
Oleanders are evergreen and can withstand most cold and endure the heat. It is in the same family as the Plumeria. Many varieties are named after prominent people from the Island.
“George Sealy, Jr. started collecting varieties and naming them for people of prominence,” says Elizabeth. “There’s even one named after me.”
Elizabeth explained that the Oleander has a place in the European and Mediterranean region on into Asia. In Isreal they say if you see an Oleander growing, you will know there is water nearby. “The roots seek water,” says Elizabeth.
The society get support and endowments from the Sealy family, the Kempner Fund, Mary Moody Northen, the Moody Foundation and they work closely with Moody Gardens.
The society meets on the last wednesday of the month from February through October at the Rosenberg Library at 9:30 a.m. Sometimes they have a lunch meeting. The annual meeting is in October. The society is a 501.C3 non profit organization. “We’d be delighted to have people join us,” says Elizabeth.
This year’s Annual Oleander Festival takes place May 21 through 22 at Moody Gardens from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free and it is the perfect opportunity to purchase Galveston’s official flower. The event will feature Oleander displays, an art contest, kids crafts, floral design competition for kids and adults, photo contest, nature tours, master gardener tips and plant vendors. The event kicks-off with a luncheon at 11:30 a.m. on May 20 in the Viewfinders Room at Moody Gardens Hotel. Tickets are $30.
For more information contact M.L. Kelso at 409-744-4716 by May 16. Also visit www.oleander.org for more information.