The Spotlight on Oleander: Woman’s Death Brings Attention to the Toxic Plant

The passing of a 24-year-old woman from Pallippad, near Haripad, in Alappuzha, Kerala, allegedly after consuming the leaf and flower of Nerium oleander (Arali), has drawn attention to the poisonous plant.

Soorya Surendran, a nurse, collapsed upon reaching the Cochin International Airport to travel to the United Kingdom on April 28. She succumbed to her condition on Monday while receiving treatment at a hospital in Parumala.

According to the Haripad police, Soorya had informed doctors and her parents that she had chewed on a leaf and flower of a plant (later identified as oleander) and spat it out immediately on the morning of April 28 while walking outside her home, engaged in a conversation over her mobile phone.

The initial findings of the post-mortem examination revealed no traces of the leaf or flower in her intestine. However, medical professionals suspect that the woman might have inadvertently consumed a small quantity of the juice from the leaf and flower of oleander. Authorities are awaiting the viscera report to confirm this suspicion. “We are awaiting the detailed post-mortem report as well as the examination report of internal organs to ascertain the exact cause of death,” said Haripad circle inspector K. Abhilash Kumar.

Experts note that Nerium oleander contains highly poisonous cardiac chemicals that directly affect the heart. “It contains oleandrin, neriin, and digitoxigenin, of which oleandrin is the principal toxin. As it contains cardiac poison, its immediate effect is on the heart. Depending upon the quantity and the plant part that enters the human body, its effect will vary,” explained P.R. Unnikrishna Pillai, former Principal and retired professor of Botany at Sanatana Dharma College, Alappuzha.

Despite its high toxicity, Oleander flowers are extensively used across Kerala in temples for rituals, funerals, and various celebrations.

Awaiting the forensic report, P.S. Prasanth, president of the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), revealed that the board is awaiting a forensic report on the young woman’s demise before deciding on a potential ban. “If it’s confirmed that oleander poisoning caused her death, we will implement a ban on the flower across all 1,252 temples under our jurisdiction,” he emphasized. Devotees and TDB employees have also expressed their concern about this issue to the board authority.

Oleander, alongside the lotus, is a commonly used flower during the Pushpabhishekam ceremony at the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple, and it is also used to make large garlands.

“The flower, extensively cultivated in neighboring states, has quickly replaced local varieties like ixora shrubs (Chethi), jasmine, and holy basil (Tulsi) in performing rituals. However, due to widespread awareness campaigns highlighting its potential hazards, most temples have significantly reduced its usage in recent times,” added Mr. Prasanth.

The flower also plays a significant role in the Devaharitham project by the TDB, which aims to establish flower farms in the premises of each temple under the board, thereby reducing the expenditure on purchasing flowers for daily rituals.

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